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Saints' Free Agent Prospect: James Laurinaitis

After the surprising cut of Los Angeles's James Laurinaitis, the 29 year old linebacker is on the free market. The Saints' need for a better front 7 is well documented, but whether they need veteran leadership or more youth is the question heading into free agency.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

After an abhorrent 2015 performance, the New Orleans Saints' defense is faced with more questions than ever.  The first one they're being presented with is how to upgrade their front seven.  Their linebackers struggled in coverage and their pass rushers got no pressure, which led to an awful performance on all levels.  The Rams recently released Chris Long and James Laurinaitis, two players that the Saints may took a look at in free agency.

The latter is the one that may be beneficial for the Saints.  Laurinaitis played in a 4-3 defense, but he was also recognized as one of the more intelligent pre snap players in the league.  This would relieve sophomore Stephone Anthony of a ton of pressure heading into 2015, as he was the Saints' defensive signal caller in his rookie season.

However, there is a serious hitch.  29 is the new 40 in the NFL, especially for a defenseman.  While he had the same amount of total tackles in 2015 as 2014, he was down 20 solo tackles, which is a (slightly) better indicator of how an MLB is playing.  He also has seen a steep decline in his coverage abilities, which is where Anthony struggled the most in 2015, with only one pass defended.  It's the first time in his career that he hasn't had at least three.

This play perfectly illustrates Laurinaitis's struggles in coverage.  The Washington Redskins are running a play action out of a heavy set in which Kirk Cousins fakes to Alfred Morris while Jordan Reed runs a post over the middle.  St. Louis (I don't know what to call them if it was last year's team) is running a base Cover 3, in which Laurinaitis is responsible for the intermediate middle of the field.

On the fake, Laurinaitis bites down.  Reed now has the middle of the field free, and the Rams have only one safety high.  Reed comes off of the line uncontested, and there is now no one to stop him from making a play over the middle of the field.  Laurinaitis is tentative, but his initial step is down, rather than a neutral bounce, which makes him susceptible to the play fake.

Laurinaitis realizes his mistake almost instantly, and makes a beeline back.  The reason for the outline of his route is to illustrate that this isn't what you want to do.  Reed is still alone, and the high safety is still moving back.  Now Laurinaitis has his back to the play, and the best that he can hope for is a pass interference call for face guarding.

Reed makes the catch in the gap, and Laurinaitis is already in position to make the tackle since he's in full pursuit.  However, Laurinaitis can't leave that part of the field unattended to, dealing with a big bodied tight end like Reed.  Reed catches the pass for 21 yards, and it's a rough start for the StL defense.

This play is a lot quicker and a lot more reflect of how intuitive Laurinaitis can be, but it should be taken with a grain of salt because it may have been a product of overpursuit gone right.  Laurinaitis is matched up in man with Arizona RB Chris Johnson.  St. Louis has 8 stacked in the box, and Arizona is running with a big set of their own.  This is a play action quick hitter to Johnson.

This play is broken from the start for AZ, and Johnson tries to salvage it.  If it's a read play, then to be frank, it's a bad read Johnson.  If he leaks outside, he may have space to work.  But hindsight it 20/20.  Laurinaitis moves downhill towards Johnson, trying to seal off the prospective B gap.  Palmer is facing an unblocked TJ McDonald on his blindside, forcing him to go checkdown.

Laurinaitis is on top of Johnson the instant that he catches the ball, stopping him for a one yard gain.  This was a huge struggle for the Saints last year: Mitigating YAC on underneath throws.  This play is a great team effort from StL, and it was the product of tremendous outside pressure off of a successful blitz, but Laurinaitis does an excellent job of reading the play and filling his area as it needs to be filled.

Whether you use numbers or letters, the above is a refresher on gap schemes.  This is Laurinaitis is the running game.  Despite using letters, directly over the center is always the 0 gap.  The responsibility of a 4-3 linebacker in a traditional defense is the A Gaps, although pursuit trumps all as linebackers become more intuitive.  StL has a very basic run scheme on this play.  Laurinaitis is staggered towards the strong side, and Robert Quinn (94, outside) is lined up on the tight end, trying to seal the off tackle.

This is that same point in the pre-snap, only with blocking assignments rather than defensive.  The right tackle is handling the LDE, the right guard handles the Will Side linebacker, the Center is responsible for Aaron Donald directly over him, the left guard (that's who we care about) dekes inside and then engages on the second level, and the left tackle engages the RDT.  The only second level player unaccounted for by a lineman is the Sam Side linebacker, but the Tight End would be responsible for engaging him.

The play is an HB dive, and every player in the StL front four is accounted for.  AZ's stack TE twists inside to engage the free safety, and Laurinaitis at this point of the play should be dashing toward the ball carrier.  If Johnson succeeds in cutting back, he has tons of open field to work with.

Laurinaitis's hesitation allows the left guard to recover from his initial misread and recover, taking him out of the play on the second level.  Johnson's wide open hole stays open, and he is able to get past the first level of the play.

Johnson spins off of the engaged Laurinaitis to pick up another 2-3 yards on the play, and what should have been either a loss or a no gain turns into an 8 yard run for Johnson and the Cardinals, getting them into the red zone.

It isn't all bad.  This play is a combination of both Laurinaitis's pursuit skills and his ability to read a play.  Minnesota is running a Zone Blocking Scheme on this play, and the name of the ZBS is chaos.  The idea is to create so many bodies in a small space, causing people to lose themselves in the scrum.  The strong side of the line pulls as a unit, and Adrian Peterson attempts to bounce outside.

The scrum is clearly apparent on this play.  Peterson foregoes the gaps and attempts to go off tackle, as the entire Rams' defense attempts to pursue.  Laurinaitis sees one gap to shoot through on the outside, but that gap will ruin his angle.  The strong side CB is already engaged by blockers outside.

Peterson at this point has two option.  Keep heading outside and takes his chances with the two DBs, or try to cut upfield take his chances with Laurinaitis.  Laurinaitis, who aforementionedly gave up his angle just to try to stay in the play, is still coming for Peterson to try to stop him from breaking the play.

Laurinaitis ultimately catches up Peterson, bringing him down after a 7 yard gain.  Contextually, this 7 yards is very different, as the previous play was solely Laurinaitis's responsibility.  This one required him to make an exceptionally difficult tackle on the outside against the rushing champion of the season.  Laurinaitis not only read the play successfully, but he also weaved through the play and was able to make a very difficult tackle after being forced into a difficult angle of pursuit.

This play may be my favorite to use, because it illustrates two things:

1.) Successful gap control and its effects and

2.) The importance of a nose tackle.  For all intents and purposes, Aaron Donald is an NT.  He lines up over the center and wreaks havoc on the offensive line and, by extension, the entire offense.  By clogging up the middle of the play, Donald makes the second level of the defense's jobs so much easier by forcing the offensive line to alter their entire blocking schemes to handle him.

Laurinaitis reads the play quickly and Donald takes the center out of the play.  Now, the fullback is tasked with blocking Laurinaitis in the middle, who reads Roethlisberger's angle handing the ball off in addition to Le'veon Bell's angle receiving it.  This pegs the play as an A gap run, and Laurinaitis turns his hips upfield in order to control the A gap.

Naturally, Bell panics.  The inside is sealed off and there aren't any gaps to run the ball through.  Bell is a very patient runner, one that can keep his feet moving behind the line of scrimmage until a gap opens up, but Laurinaitis is able to shed the fullback while Donald manhandles the center.  The result of this combo is that their paths of pursuit directly intersect on Bell's only option, which kills the play from the start and limits Bell to a 1 yard gain.

Laurinaitis simply didn't do much in coverage over the middle of the field last season.  He mostly played the role that an MLB would play in the Tampa 2, where he sits in the middle of the field (although obviously StL ran a vastly different scheme than the very niche Tampa 2.  StL generally relied on heavy blitzing and their corners on the outside, as a Gregg Williams defense is want to do.

All in all, Laurinaitis offers a lot to a team like the Saints.  He's a highly intelligent, intuitive linebacker that can take some of the pressure off of the Saints' young corps.  Hau'oli Kikaha and Stephone Anthony are athletic, but they're overzealous and young.  They only want to make the play, and sometimes forget to think smarter.  Anthony struggled greatly in coverage last season, and although Laurinaitis may not be able to play as well in the practice anymore, he knows the theory.  If he can make the switch to an ILB in a 3-4 scheme, then he could round out a corps of Dannell Ellerbe, Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha/Kasim Edebali/Whoever the Saints may go for in this offseason.  If he can come in and teach the young guys to hold their positions and focus on their role in the defense, then he could be an invaluable addition to the Saints.

Those that watched Laurinaitis last year would agree that he's lost a step or two, but he's a thinker.  He can read a play, his fatal flaw last year was hesitation.  Whether it was being unsure of himself on the run or pass or failing to step into a wide open hole, Laurinaitis's point of pursuit was off last year.  The hope is that that's fixable, and he can regain the killer instincts that made him successful in StL in the early part of the year.  Laurinaitis, however, wouldn't be strictly a physical addition.  His addition would mean for the Saints linebacking corps what Charles Tillman's addition meant to Carolina's secondary last year (to use a successful example).

Laurinaitis's price tag is also a concern, as he is only 29 and, although he's coming off of what may have been the worst season of his career, he hasn't missed a game in his entire career.  He's never had less than 100 total tackles, and his intelligence is a well known commodity throughout the league.  In a league that values defense like it does, some team like the Bengals or the Dolphins (both of whom have more salary cap than the Saints, although the latter is still tied up in Suh's contract so they're less likely) may be looking to add Laurinaitis.  The 49ers are a possibility as well, but this is all speculation.  The general point is that he will be seriously looked at as a free agent, and the Saints don't want to handcuff themselves to one player this offseason when their needs are stretched so thin on the defensive side of ball.

Laurinaitis remained strong in the running game, but the Saints would run a serious risk if they signed him, as his contributions in pass coverage would be minimal.  Anthony and Kikaha were anywhere from decent to awful in pass coverage last season, so personal value will be key in evaluating whether or not to sign a veteran such as Laurinaitis.