Film Study: 2016 New Orleans Saints Free Agents
James Laurinaitis, linebacker
Seven-year NFL veteran James Laurinaitis was unexpectedly released this spring, which made him available for New Orleans to pluck off the street and thrust into the middle of the competition to start at middle linebacker with second-year dynamo Stephone Anthony. Laurinaitis has been one of the NFL’s most consistent and durable defenders during his career; the 29-year old has played the most snaps of any defender since 2007. He is respected leaguewide for his professionalism, leadership qualities, work ethic, and strength of character.
Laurinaitis has some flaws and limitations to his game. He’s lost a step in coverage and struggled with a hyperextended elbow for most of 2015. Even so, Laurinaitis brings a physical presence at linebacker that the Saints haven’t enjoyed in years. He plays to the whistle and sets the tone with some devastating hits, like his decleating of Seattle Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin early in the 2015 season-opener.
But that’s not to say that Laurinaitis is just a bully. He’s an enforcer for sure, but he’s also one of the more intelligent linebackers prowling NFL backfields these days. He’s seen it all in his near-decade patrolling the NFC West, ranging from Bruce Arians’ high-flying Arizona offense to heavy doses of Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. He regularly made calls on defense to get teammates lined up right and adjust to more favorable fronts and coverages. Laurinaitis’ combination of experience and sure technique is a perfect complement to the younger Anthony as an example of “what right looks like”.
Assuming that Laurinaitis wins the starting job at middle linebacker this summer, Anthony will probably slide to the strong side linebacker spot in his sophomore campaign. This is essentially the same position that Khalil Mack played in Dennis Allen’s defense in 2015, which would let Anthony make tons of plays around the line of scrimmage and use his instincts and athleticism to his advantage. With Laurinaitis exemplifying solid middle linebacker play next to him, Anthony could be allowed to go out and make plays while studying what to do when he resumes the job in the future.
Laurinaitis should also be commended for the low-value contract he took to join the team. At a time when most players agree to bonus money in exchange for certain numbers of sacks, turnovers, weight goals, or postseason appearances, Laurinaitis tied his earnings to the defensive unit’s ranking among its peers. Laurinaitis’ average salary of $2.75-million per year ranks 29th at his position, and the Saints can save $2.15-million in 2017 and $2.75-million in 2018 by releasing him from that contract. By all accounts, signing Laurinaitis was a steal.
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