It’s clear watching film of the St. Louis Rams defense from last season who served as the quarterback of the unit.
James Laurinaitis can be seen barking orders to his teammates and gesturing to get them lined up. He’s able to read the offense and knows his defense in and out. He almost always makes the proper checks and puts his team in position to succeed.
These qualities are one of the things that attracted the Saints to the veteran linebacker. The New Orleans defense is young and short on leadership, particularly in the linebacking corps where second-year player Stephone Anthony is the incumbent middle linebacker.
But to distil the decision to sign Laurinaitis down to his ability to lead is too simplistic. The Saints are also interested in getting better at linebacker, and Laurinaitis could help accomplish that task in a few ways.
The harsh reality is the bar wasn’t set very high last season for a variety of reasons.
New Orleans struggled with depth at linebacker throughout last season. When Dannell Ellerbe went down, there weren’t many options on the weak side. And when Hau’oli Kikaha went down with an ankle injury and then struggled to fight his way back into the lineup late in the season, New Orleans struggled to find viable options on the strong side and were forced to turn to street agents.
Laurinaitis can help there. He also gives the Saints options. New Orleans could play him in the middle and move Anthony to strongside linebacker, which would allow the second-year player to read and react more often. It could also allow him to blitz more often, which is another strength of his game.
This could then allow the Saints to move Kikaha to defensive end or use him as a situational pass rusher, which, again, would better suit his game. While he had several standout moments last season, Kikaha was at a disadvantage when forced to drop into coverage.
It’s also possible Laurinaitis plays on the strong side and Anthony remains in the middle. Or that Laurinaitis is here to serve as depth. What matters is the Saints have options on defense, and this, more than anything, is what they were after.
There’s a reason the team made several calls to inside linebackers during free agency.
But beyond the intangibles and roster shuffling, New Orleans believes Laurinaitis can still play and contribute. The odds of him going back to being the player he was in 2011 when he recorded 142 tackles and three sacks are slim. He isn’t going to compete for the Pro Bowl, but he can help this team with his play.
Many scouting reports were hard on the veteran linebacker last season and some analytics sites would have you believe that he’s done being an effective football player. But it needs to be understood that Laurinaitis played through a serious elbow injury and could be seen clutching his elbow and withering in pain on the turf after many tackle attempts late last season.
It’s reasonable to think he should see some improvement by simply getting on the other side of the injury. That’s a good thing for the Saints.
And even if there was some deterioration to his game last season, Laurinaitis still has good instincts and knows how to put himself in position to make plays. Considering how porous the Saints were against the run, having a player who can read a run and snuff it out will be a welcome addition.
The fact that he’s a sure tackler and should be able to chase down runs when they spring free is something else that should help tremendously.
Laurinaitis might no longer be the player he was five or six years ago when he served as the heart and soul of the Rams’ defense, but those are unreasonable expectations for a player at this stage in his career. He’s no longer in his prime, but that doesn’t mean he’s done being an effective football player.
The Saints need more of those. Laurinaitis helps the overall depth but there’s still a need at weakside linebacker behind Ellerbe. And more quality depth could be added across the board.
But this move, at least, takes some of the immediate need off the Saints. It also could help alleviate some of the needs on the defensive line if New Orleans believes Kikaha could move down and play defensive end.
It will take some time to see how the pieces of the puzzle come together in the front seven. Whatever image the picture forms, what matters is that should look a little more favorable for the Saints on defense.