James Laurinaitis finds himself on the other side of the NFL’s two-sided coin right now.
For years, Laurinaitis was the established team leader in a position of stability, watching free agents and rookies come into the Rams locker room and try to carve out a spot for themselves among an already tight-knit group.
Now, Laurinaitis is the one of the new faces in the room in New Orleans.
“Some of the best advice I ever got when I first got into the league was from O.J. Atogwe — he played safety for (the Rams) — and he said make sure that you really approach every training camp like you’re a rookie,” Laurinaitis said. “Re-prove yourself.”
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Laurinaitis, 29, might have a little less to prove to his new teammates than the rest of the Saints’ offseason additions.
A seven-year veteran who has made more tackles, 852, in that time span than all but one other player in the league, Laurinaitis’ name carries instant respect around the league, particularly as a player who has rarely missed a snap despite playing one of the most physical positions in the NFL.
But the circumstances of his availability have left Laurinaitis looking to live up to that reputation.
“Whenever you are released by a team, or fired, because essentially that is what it is, you get fired ... there is definitely extra motivation to go out there and prove yourself,” Laurinaitis said.
Laurinaitis has been around the NFL long enough to know that his release was a possibility. In the Rams’ parking lot in St. Louis, the spaces are assigned by seniority, and Laurinaitis used to joke with friends and family that the closer his car got to the front of the lot, the closer a player got to leaving the lot entirely.
The heart and soul of the Rams defense for so many years, Laurinaitis did initially think he’d be making the move to Los Angeles with the rest of the Rams, largely because the team had already included him in plans to promote the franchise in its new home.
“They sent out information asking players to respond to whether you are going to go out to Los Angeles to attend a voluntary team meeting, and I responded yes, and I did a media interview for ESPN LA,” Laurinaitis said. “Two days later, I was released.”
Laurinaitis, who has never played in a playoff game, told agent Tom Condon he wanted to go to an organization capable of competing in the postseason, particularly a team with a successful quarterback and a successful offense. The Rams teams Laurinaitis played for in St. Louis were in constant search of a quarterback, a big reason the veteran linebacker has never been to the playoffs.
New Orleans called first. Five or six more teams called, and Laurinaitis visited both the Saints and Atlanta Falcons.
“Only a couple had a quarterback, an offense and a roster that I felt could be in the playoffs,” Laurinaitis said.
Laurinaitis plans to throw himself headlong into becoming a part of his new team. After he signed, he asked defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and linebackers coach Joe Vitt for the numbers of a few key teammates and started texting them, introducing himself to the defense he’ll be leading next season. He and his wife plan to house hunt in New Orleans the next two days, and after the sale of his St. Louis home closes April 15, the veteran linebacker plans to be in New Orleans full time.
But he knows he’ll earn his place largely by what he does on the field. Laurinaitis made 109 tackles, a sack and an interception last season while playing through a hyperextended left elbow that included a torn ulnar collateral ligament and left him unable to take on blocks with anything but his shoulders.
Now healthy again, Laurinaitis plans to show the Saints, and the rest of the league, that he’s still the kind of player who can be the heart and soul of a defense.
“Look, I have a lot left in the tank and can go out there and play great football,” Laurinaitis said. “Can’t really prove it until the fall when the games start and they matter.”
Until then, he plans to show his new teammates how much he can help.