According to NFL.com, the St. Louis Rams have handed a new five-year contract to their defensive leader, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. The report indicates the deal will pay Laurinaitis close to $42.2 million throughout that time.
It's excellent news for the Rams on the eve of the 2012 NFL season. Tying down one of their brightest young stars is a positive move from the new Jeff Fisher-led regime and indicates the players' faith in the latest rebuilding effort in St. Louis.
Most importantly, Laurinaitis is essential to the Rams' defensive effort. Since being drafted in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft by then-head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the ex-Ohio State standout has become the linchpin of the Rams' 4-3 front.
In just three seasons, Laurinaitis has established himself as the ideal combination of smarts and tenacity at the heart of a defense. He is an active and intelligent athlete who delivers a punishing hit once he gets to the ball.
His knack for making plays has helped Laurinaitis lead the Rams in tackles in each of his three pro seasons, and the numbers are certainly impressive. He recorded 120 combined tackles as a rookie and followed that up with 114 in 2010, helping the Rams finish a game shy of the NFC West title. Last season, Laurinaitis was at his most active, notching 142 total stops.
He also has displayed a fine understanding of pass reads and concepts, evidenced by his 17 pass breakups and five career interceptions. He developed into a dangerous blitzer under Spagnuolo's tutelage as well, collecting eight career sacks so far.
Laurinaitis may be even more important this season. He will be the on-field coach for perhaps the even more aggressive, 46-style schemes favored by Fisher and de facto defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis.
Quarterback Sam Bradford is the face of the offense and maybe even the franchise. However, Laurinaitis is the face of the defense and perhaps the most important leader for one of the NFL's youngest teams.
Keeping him around ensures the potential for a bright future for a franchise that has won just 15 games in the last five seasons.