Middle linebacker and Rams’ team leader James Laurinaitis is keeping an eye on his young teammates these days. And that’s quite a chore, considering the 53-man roster includes 12 rookies and 14 second-year players.
And that doesn’t include running back Chase Reynolds, a third-year pro who has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game or second-year running back Isaiah Pead, who will sit out Sunday’s 3.25 p.m. opener against the Arizona Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome while serving a one-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
“I believe we’re better. On paper we are, but we all know how that goes,” said Laurinaitis, a fifth-year pro out of Ohio State, following a recent practice at Rams Park. “Quite frankly, I’ll bet there are 32 teams out there that feel pretty good about their chances right now.
“We seem to be better, but what I look for now is the whole overall focus and sense of urgency we have to continue getting better day in and day out.”
He continued: “Are we as a team committed to doing the little things heading into game week and especially on game day? I think we are. This team is young, but it’s also very hungry and it’s good to be around all that young energy.”
Laurinaitis has seen a lot in his time with the Rams. The team finished 1-15 in his rookie campaign and flirted with winning a playoff berth while finishing 7-9 in 2010. The Rams slipped back to 2-14 in 2011 before showing promise with a 7-8-1 finish a year ago in the first season under the direction of general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher.
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In four seasons, Laurinaitis has been as steady as they come, starting every game of his professional career and leading the team in tackles in all four seasons. He also is effective against the pass with nine sacks, seven interceptions and 26 passes defended.
Laurinaitis has learned what it takes to play in the NFL and how to conduct himself as a pro. And he does not hesitate to share that information with the young players around him. He tries to stay available to all teammates, but his focus is a group of linebackers featuring first-round draft choice Alec Ogletree and rookie free agents Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart.
But Laurinaitis’ help does not always revolve around the Xs and Os.
“I’m big on the things that don’t take talent to be successful,” the 26-year-old said. “In the NFL, there’s talent everywhere. So what are the things that don’t require a 40 time or a bench press that can help you get over the top? There are things you can control — your attitude when you come in to work, your work ethic, how much film you watch, your communication on the field — those are things that don’t require God’s gifts, but believe me, they definitely make a difference.”
One of the key’s to Laurinatis’ success is pre-game preparation, and that’s something he has stressed with the young linebackers.
“I talked to Alec and Ray Ray, Bates today after practice and told them that if you don’t have a great feel for Arizona by the time you come back here on Tuesday, we’re already behind. That’s just the reality of the NFL,” Laurinaitis said. “Personally, I like to stay a couple of days ahead, so that when we start going over things in practice, there are no surprises.”
For undrafted free agents like Armstrong and Bates, the waiting game was a struggle on Saturday before the roster was finalized.
“It was a long day, just waiting on the coaches to make those final decisions,” said Bates, a 5-foot-11, 225-pounder from Auburn. “Some of us were talking and hanging around in the locker room, just trying to keep busy because, at that point, your mind’s going a million miles an hour. But then, when you get in the meeting room with the other 53 guys, it’s a blessing and a relief because you know you can go back to concentrating on football.”
Armstrong added: “I felt good about the way I’d played, but honestly, I didn’t feel secure at all until the very end.”
Both players will serve as reserve linebackers, but their calling card with the Rams will be special teams.
“I talked to a lot of people before I got here, and one of the things nearly everybody mentioned was special teams,” said Armstrong, who at 6-3, 234 pounds played safety in college. “I took the special teams stuff seriously because I knew that would be my way of finding a role on this team.”
Both players impressed coaches with their hard-nosed, all-out style of play.
“My goal coming in was to go 100 percent at all times to help make the coaches’ decision on me a little easier to make,” Armstrong said. “And now I have to keep it up. Every day, there’s something to be learned from your teammates or your coaches.”
Bates wants to take a similar approach.
“This is a business and every man out here is out to win or keep his spot,” the 23-year-old said. “You show up for work every day and you make sure that you’re 100 percent into anything the coaches want you to do.”
Neither player talked about celebrating on Saturday night.
“It’s not over yet,” Armstrong said. “The work is just beginning for us.”
Following a couple of days off, the Rams return to the practice field late this morning in preparation for their opener with Arizona on Sunday.
• The NFL season kicks off Thursday at 7:30 p.m. as the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens travel to Denver to take on the Broncos. The game will be televised by NBC.
“This is my 16th opening day, and I’ve played in this opening game three times,” Denver quarterback Peyton Manning said in an NFL release. “It’s got a little something extra to it. I think everybody will be excited and have some healthy butterflies. It think it’s a good thing.”