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Saturday, September 8, 2012
Deal affirms Laurinaitis, who relishes role

By Mike Sando

The question was when, not if, the St. Louis Rams would reach a long-term agreement with middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.

It happened Saturday, one day before the Rams visit Detroit for their first regular-season game under coach Jeff Fisher.

James Laurinaitis
After extending the contract of James Laurinaitis, the Rams have locked up cornerstone players at every level of the defense.
The deal comes two days after division-rival Arizona re-signed Daryl Washington, another young and rising inside linebacker. We'll now have to see whether the San Francisco 49ers can work out something with NaVorro Bowman, an All-Pro at inside linebacker in 2011, before his deal expires following the 2013 season.

The Rams' deal with Laurinaitis locks into place building blocks at every level of their defense. They re-signed defensive end Chris Long following his 13-sack showing in 2011. They also used a 2012 first-round pick for defensive tackle Michael Brockers and a 2011 first-rounder for defensive end Robert Quinn.

Veteran Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins are the building blocks in the secondary, where safety Quintin Mikell also remains signed for the long term. Trumaine Johnson is another rookie corner in the rotation.

Laurinaitis, a second-round choice in 2009, is signed through 2017, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Long, a first-rounder from the 2008 class, is signed through 2016.

The Rams have the NFL's youngest roster by average age. They also have leaders at every position on defense. Long will mentor Brockers and Quinn. Laurinaitis is the leader at linebacker (the team still needs young talent at that position, in my view). Finnegan will mentor Jenkins and Johnson.

"We have guys that are veterans and you are pairing them with young guys and I think that is important," Laurinaitis said from training camp last month. "You don't want just a young guy to be the biggest guy in a room. You want him paired with people so that he gets it: 'OK, this is how I show up, this is how I'm accountable, this is how I'm a pro, this is what’s expected of me. I think it’s important. They’ve done a great job of really filling this roster out."

Middle linebackers have flourished in the system Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis have installed. London Fletcher, Antonio Pierce, Mike Singletary and Jonathan Vilma are a few of them. Laurinaitis wants to be next.

"When you think of those players, you think very intelligent, very good leaders, guys who are durable and accountable," Laurinaitis said. "When the quarterback makes a check, the mike backer has to be able to make a countercheck and just have a feel for a football game.

"I relish that role, I relish that responsibility. I love the fact that the coach is going to say to me, 'If you see something on the field, you make the call. You’re not going to be wrong, you’re the one playing, you make the call.'

"And then maybe I make a bad check in practice, but it’s not, 'Hey, you did the wrong thing.' It's, 'Hey, why did you make that call?' Well, I made it because I thought it was this. They say, 'Oh, well, why don’t you look at this guy, he’ll tell you it’s pass, he’ll tell you it’s run.'

"It's an interaction. It’s not just a 'we’re right, you’re wrong.' That is an inspiration to me. It’s a big responsibility and I love it."