Selecting Ohio State middle linebacker James Laurinaitis in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft raised questions, initially, as to why the St. Louis Rams passed on a potentially more talented middle linebacker in Rey Maualuga.
Two years later, Laurinaitis has put to rest that question while raising another: Might the third-year Rams linebacker outperform the Seattle Seahawks' Aaron Curry, the undisputed top-ranked linebacker in the 2009 draft? Initial reviews suggest he might.
Fifty-three percent of the first 3,629 poll respondents singled out Laurinaitis as the highly drafted young NFC West linebacker with the brightest NFL future. Curry was second with 38 percent, followed by 2010 Arizona Cardinals second-round choice Daryl Washington with 8 percent. The San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis, already established as arguably the NFL's best linebacker, wasn't part of the survey.
"I think Laurinaitis is a star in the making," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He is clearly the second-best linebacker in the division. He is going to be headed to Pro Bowls as soon as this upcoming year."
That will be easier said than done given Willis' perennial Pro Bowl status and the limited number of slots available for inside linebackers. But the broader point stands. The Rams found their quarterback on defense before anyone knew they would select an actual quarterback, Sam Bradford, first overall in 2010.
"Laurinaitis brings an attitude to the team," Williamson said. "He is really smart, he is an extension of coach Steve Spagnuolo on the field. He isn't really a banger -- he doesn't take on blocks as well -- but Fred Robbins does a great job keeping him clean and they will likely add another defensive tackle. Laurinaitis is a foundation for that football team."
Rams general manager Billy Devaney used the words smart, passionate and productive in describing Laurinaitis on draft day two years ago. At the time, Devaney said the team considered sacrificing one or more of those qualities in the quest for greater talent. Laurinaitis has proved to be sufficiently talented even if he'll never become a dominant sideline-to-sideline force along the lines of Willis or Ray Lewis.
Curry certainly has more raw physical talent, but Laurinaitis' superior feel for the game has become obvious to this point in their careers. That was expected, to a degree, because teams ask 4-3 middle linebackers to call out defensive adjustments based on what they see from offenses. Curry, as a strong-side linebacker, was never going to play that role, particularly on a defense already featuring Lofa Tatupu.
The Seahawks have toyed with ways to feature Curry in their defense. Curry has fared OK as a pass-rusher at times, but not well enough to supplant Chris Clemons or Raheem Brock as a primary outside rusher. Curry's physical strength has shown up against tight ends at the line of scrimmage, but only to those looking for it.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who inherited Curry from the team's previous leadership, said unrealistic expectations are making it tougher for fans to appreciate Curry.
"He is a really talented, big, good-looking athlete and everybody on the outside expects him to be something different than what he is right now," Carroll said from the NFL owners meeting last month. "He hasn't dominated yet, but he is a player on the come and he is improving and working hard and figuring it out. He is a factor. He is a real positive factor for us. But it's all expectations. That screws everyone up."
High expectations are warranted when a team drafts a player fourth overall, even though Carroll wasn't part of that evaluation. It's not like the Seahawks were wrong when they saw a prospect with obvious physical attributes.
Williamson gave Curry a slight edge over even Willis in overall physical tools. So far, however, too much has been lost in translation.
A change in coaching staffs could explain some of the difficulties. Injuries to Tatupu, Red Bryant and others in the Seahawks' front seven have not helped. At a certain point, however, the fourth pick in the draft should transcend these sorts of factors.
"If we are having this conversation next year, then I think he doesn't live up to it," Williamson said. "He is the type of guy you should be accounting for every play. My sister should be in the stands going, 'Who is that guy? He is different from everybody else.' "
Laurinaitis has served as an every-down linebacker while starting each of his first 32 games. He has five sacks and three interceptions. Rams coaches credited Laurinaitis with seven passes defensed last season. Only cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher had more for the Rams, according to coaches' evaluations.
Curry has 28 starts, 5.5 sacks and no interceptions while coming off the field regularly, sometimes for stretches.
"If you take a look at how he plays and what he does and how he produces, he's getting a lot done," Carroll said of Curry, "but it doesn’t meet up to the expectations. You can almost misevaluate him because he is supposed to be whatever he is supposed to be. To me, he is a guy on the team who busts his ass and is working hard and we're trying to fit into situations and a role for him that is best."
The Cardinals' Washington hasn't played long enough to evaluate in the same manner, but he did make a positive impression while starting 11 games as a rookie. Washington finished the season with one sack, one interception and six tackles for loss. He was the first Cardinals rookie since Antrel Rolle in 2005 to start a season opener.
"I didn't think he was a wonderful fit in the 3-4," Williamson said. "He was more the Derrick Brooks run-and-hit type, but he acclimated himself well. They have a good defensive line. If they can keep him clean, he can be a playmaker. He has a lot of potential, a lot of range."
While Curry is still finding his way and Washington is only getting started, Laurinaitis is exactly what the Rams thought they were getting -- a sure bet.
"I think he is going to be one of the better linebackers in the NFL for the next 10 years," Williamson said.