The linebacker group was expected to be an area of strength for the St. Louis Rams coming into the 2013 season. After adding Alec Ogletree in the first round to further bolster what was already a very formidable crew, the Rams appeared ready to take the next step toward having an elite, young defense to help contain some of the offensive weapons within the NFC West.
Not so fast, my friend.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar had an outstanding year last season after essentially being picked up off of the scrap heap by Rams general manager Les Snead. His 115 tackles ranked second on the team as he also accrued 4.5 sacks and two interceptions. The NFL announced that the linebacker would be suspended for the first four games of the 2013 season due to a positive test for performance-enhancing substances.
Losing that much defensive production will be difficult to replace with just one player, but thankfully the Rams signed veteran free agent Will Witherspoon in addition to drafting Ogletree this offseason. Both will now likely be day one starters for the team with increased responsibilities, especially during the first four weeks.
Those first four opponents for the Rams are a solid bunch as they open the season at home game against the Arizona Cardinals. They then face consecutive away games at the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys before returning home in Week 4 to face a crucial showdown with the San Francisco 49ers. The team will also be without running back Isaiah Pead for the opener as he too was suspended by the league for violating the substance abuse policy.
Jeff Fisher is used to having his players walk a tightrope in many senses, but this has to be disconcerting for a team with high hopes entering the season. Dunbar is also in a contract year and this will severely hinder his chances of cashing in on what will likely be his last chance to earn a long-term, big-money deal at 28 years of age.
The steady presence of James Laurinaitis along with an improved secondary and an always potent pass rush should help mask the loss of Dunbar through the first four games. There’s no doubt the team will miss its second leading tackler, however, and just how much will be determined through that opening four-game stretch.