Suspension will challenge Rams LB depth

EARTH CITY, Mo. – The news that starting outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar is suspended for the first four games of the season because of a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy leaves plenty of questions for the Rams’ depth at that position as well as Dunbar’s long-term future with the team.

Dunbar is not eligible to return until Sept. 27, the day after the Rams play San Francisco at the Edward Jones Dome. That means he’ll miss games against Arizona, at Atlanta, at Dallas and against San Francisco. Dunbar’s suspension is the third of the offseason for the Rams. Running back Isaiah Pead and guard Rokevious Watkins, who has since been released, were suspended for a game each earlier this year.

From a defensive perspective, the loss of Dunbar is a big one for the Rams. He was something of a revelation in 2012 for a team that had been in dire need of linebacker help alongside James Laurinaitis.

However, the security of having signed veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon on July 22 does soften this blow a bit. He’s the most likely in-house candidate to step in for Dunbar.

In what was perhaps a bit of foreshadowing by the Rams -- teams often know of possible suspensions long before they become public -- they signed the 11-year veteran just before training camp began.

Although Witherspoon has experience with the defense from his time with Rams coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, the Rams are now painfully young and thin behind the starting group.

Aside from Laurinaitis and Witherspoon, only fourth-year linebacker Josh Hull has any game experience, and he has made only one start. In fact, that lone start is the only one made by any of the team’s backup linebackers.

The rest of the group includes Jabara Williams, who is entering his second season, and four undrafted rookies -- Daren Bates, Jonathan Stewart, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Joseph LeBeau.

The early read on that group is that Armstrong and Bates could bring some special teams value, but should an injury occur to Witherspoon or Laurinaitis, the Rams have no options with any meaningful experience in the NFL.

The Rams signed the little-known Dunbar to a two-year, $3.55 million contract contract on April 2, 2012. He finished second on the team in tackles (115) and posted 4.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions in his first year with the Rams.

Save for Laurinaitis, Dunbar played more snaps than any Rams defender in 2012. In addition to the base defense, Dunbar stayed on the field in nickel situations as he played 1,088 snaps or 98.6 percent of the team’s total defensive snaps for the year.

Despite Dunbar’s emergence as a productive defender after four relatively nondescript years with the Saints, the Rams spent the 30th overall pick in this year’s draft on Georgia outside linebacker Alec Ogletree.

This offseason, Ogletree has been working with the first-team defense opposite Dunbar. However, Ogletree had been getting most of the work in nickel situations, indicating that Dunbar would have taken on more of a two-down role this year.

This year also figured to be important for Dunbar’s future prospects. On the heels of his most productive NFL season, another solid season would have positioned him for a big payday as an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Dunbar recently said that his focus wasn’t on cashing in but acknowledged that the thought had crossed his mind.

“We are all human, so we all have those thoughts,” Dunbar said. “We all think about the future, but you don’t control what happens in front of you, you can only control what you are going through at that time. So good, bad or indifferent, I just want to show people I play hard and play tough. Then I’ll let everything else figure itself out.”

Dunbar could still be in line to land a new contract with the Rams or even get a deal elsewhere, but with only 12 games to impress and a suspension on his record, that prospect just became a bit more tenuous.