Super Sophomore: quantifying James Laurinaitis’ quiet improvement

Like a ninja, Laurinaitis may be almost unseen but deadly effective.

James Laurinaitis’ rookie year was about as good as it could be. He played every snap, made the defensive calls for a team that allowed 29 fewer points than the year before, led the team in tackles, and his name rang out as a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Perhaps that explains why he can somehow fly under the radar despite once again playing every snap, making the calls on a defense that allowed 108 fewer points than the year before, and leading the team in tackles.

Sure, Rams fans appreciate him, but nationally speaking his name is barely on the airwaves, despite actually showing marked improvement in his play. Why don’t they care? Because his total tackles (114) were slightly fewer than last year’s (120).

@RamsHerd Yep, shame an inaccurate, unofficial stat is the be all and end all when it comes to LB play amongst some

That’s what makes Laurinaitis’ inclusion among Pro Football Focus’ All-Sophomore Team so satisfying. Someone, at least, is paying attention.

In fact, Laurinaitis’ rookie year didn’t come with many accolades from the PFF crew — he rated 34th among 54 inside linebackers in 2009, not really grading negatively, but hardly excelling. In 2010, though, he took a big leap into the upper quartile of players, grading 14th overall out of 50 players. These ratings are based on four factors: pass rush, coverage, run defense, and penalties. Here’s a look at how Laurinaitis graded out:

Pass Rush: 20th of 50

Neighboring players: David Harris – NYJ (19th); AJ Hawk – GB, DeAndre Levy – DET, Gary Brackett – IND (T-21st).

Let’s face it, rushing the passer is probably never going to be Laurinaitis’ forte. He will stick his nose in the line, but lacks the pure strength or ferocity to burst through that wall and get to the passer with speed and intent.

Oddly enough, though, his 4 sacks and 6 hits rate top-ten for the position; his paltry 5 “hurries” — players like Lawrence Timmons, James Farrior, and Patrick Willis rack up at least one per game — are where his rating suffers.

Coverage: 32nd of 50

Neighboring players: Rolando McClain – OAK (31st); Barret Ruud – TB (33rd)

This is an area were I thought Laurinaitis showed a lot more improvement — in play recognition and speed to the flat, and in ability to take away the opposing quarterback’s safest option. He allowed a semi-respectable 69.6% completion rate last year, after allowing 80% complete in his rookie season.

However, while his technique may have improved on average, the PFF ratings count every play in cumulative. And by virtue of being thrown on more than 50 times, his rating may have fallen. JL may need to improve his rep as much as his play in this category.

Run Defense: 12th of 50

Neighboring players: Chris Gocong – CLE (11th); James Farrior – PIT (13th)

Of any area in 2010, this is where Laurinaitis made huge strides forward. Laurinaitis rated 35th against the run his rookie year, making plenty of tackles but having to catch runners from behind after being caught out of position.

This is where a deeper understanding of Spagnuolo’s scheme, and a more proficient defensive line in front of him, paid off. Laurinaitis’ 61 “stops” (solo defensive tackles, including sacks, that constitute a failed offensive play) were third most in football.

Penalties: T-1st

This is just icing on the cake, really. James Laurinaitis wasn’t flagged once in 2010. You can’t ask for better than that.