“We’re just really excited,” Fisher said. “He’s not the only one we’re working on.”
Fisher named no names but it didn’t take much effort to figure out who he was talking about. With Long under contract through 2016, the next pillar of the Rams defense scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency is middle linebacker
Like Long, Laurinaitis has been one of the few bright spots for the Rams in recent years and has established himself as one of the league’s best at his position. In Fisher’s defensive scheme, having a talented and intelligent middle linebacker is as important as any other position on the team.
In Laurinaitis, Fisher and his staff inherited one of the game’s most devoted workers, a player with an insatiable desire to play football at a high level and one who has the production to match his efforts.
With Long’s contract done, plenty of eyes turned to Laurinaitis. While Laurinaitis has acknowledged that his agents – Tom Condon and Ben Dogra of C.A.A. – have opened dialogue with the Rams on a contract, he didn’t have much of an update in terms of how far along those discussions are.
“I don’t really know,” Laurinaitis said. “Tom had mentioned that they are talking but you’re probably best to call over to CAA. I really try not to focus on that. I just go and play football and if anything happens, Tom will let me know. I haven’t really talked to him much. He just let us know that things have started, that’s basically it, that’s all the feedback I’ve gotten. I’m not really worried about it. I am trying to pick up this defense.”
Rams general manager Les Snead told fans in an online chat last week that the Rams were right on track in negotiations with both Long and Laurinaitis. All signs indicate that with Long’s deal done, Laurinaitis will be next up and it could happen sooner than later.
Of course, for a deal to be struck there has to be a mutual agreement that the team wants the player and the player wants the team. Fisher, Snead and COO Kevin Demoff, who negotiates the contracts, have at various times in various forums made it clear that retaining Laurinaitis is a priority for the organization.
Sunday evening, Laurinaitis was asked point blank if he’d like to stay in St. Louis.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Laurinaitis said. “This is the team that drafted me but you have got to let the whole process play out and that’s why I hired Tom and Ben to take care of that stuff and I think they’re pretty good. We’ll see what they come up with.”
What they’re likely to come up with is a contract that pays Laurinaitis amongst his peers as one of the top middle linebackers in football. Since the Rams grabbed him with a second-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, he’s done nothing but produce.
In 2011, Laurinaitis again led the team in tackles with 142, his third season in as many tries posting triple digits in sacks. But Laurinaitis isn’t just a tackling machine; he’s proved to be one of the league’s best three-down linebackers because of his ability to drop in coverage. He added two interceptions and finished second on the team with eight pass breakups last year.
Laurinaitis’ total package skill set allows him to stay on the field as he played a team-high 1,052 snaps last season.
Regardless of contract negotiations, Laurinaitis will be on the field for the Rams this season. With a new defensive scheme in place under Fisher, the types of things asked of Laurinaitis will be different than they’ve been in previous years. The first thing he did was drop about eight to 10 pounds in an effort to improve his conditioning.
“It’s a different scheme so last year I was about 254-252 was what I weighed usually,” Laurinaitis said. “I am under 245, I’ll tell you that right now. I am about back to the Ohio State days. I feel great. What I wanted to accomplish is I wanted to be able to run for days. I was able to do that and actually gain strength as well.”
Laurinaitis spent most of his time off back at Ohio State where he trained with former Buckeyes middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel, who is now the assistant strength coach in Columbus.
Schlegel put Laurinaitis through a series of grueling workouts with the intent to not only make Laurinaitis leaner but also to give him the ability to – as Laurinaitis said – run for days.
“You notice mostly your wind,” Laurinaitis said. “Your wind is just better. When I am done with a long run, I can get to the huddle and I don’t need to catch my breath to call it out. I was in great shape when I played at 254 but it’s just the body plays a little better when you are 8 pounds lighter, it’s a little easier to run around.”
Running around is an important part of Fisher’s defense for middle linebackers. With far more Cover 2 elements, dropping into coverage is more of a requirement for all linebackers, especially ones planning on staying on the field for all three downs.
“It’s a difference,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s just a different scheme. It’s a Cover 2 scheme. You don’t have to be head butting with a guard. It’s not to say either one is bad, it’s just different. I was always this weight, in college I didn’t play over 240 or 242 at the most. This is not a big deal; it’s just a little bit of a changeup. It was good to train nice and hard and real football specific stuff to get ready for this.”
Entering his fourth season with the Rams, Laurinaitis is now one of the unquestioned leaders of the team and, specifically, the defense.
When Laurinaitis learned of Long’s contract extension on Sunday afternoon, he was thrilled for one of his closest friends on the team and attracted to the idea of getting to play and win with Long as one of his running mates.
Completing Long’s contract before camp began was important to him but Laurinaitis said he’s not concerned with the timeframe so much as he’s worried about getting comfortable in both a new defense and his body.
Besides, Laurinaitis knows if he continues to handle his business the way he has the past three years, the rest will take care of itself.
“It’s not important to me (when it’s done),” Laurinaitis said. “What’s important to me is just being accountable to my teammates, making sure I play to the best of my ability and making sure those guys in that locker room know they can depend on me out on the field. The rest will take care of itself. I am not stressing out about it.”