Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, one of the most productive members of the Rams’ defense a year ago, has been lost for the first four games of the 2013 season due to an NFL suspension.
Dunbar, 28, will miss the Arizona, Atlanta, Dallas, and San Francisco games in September after being found in violation of NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
“First and foremost, I just want to say that I did not take a performance-enhancing drug,” Dunbar said following Wednesday’s special teams practice. “I mistakenly took something that prompted a failed drug test. I want to say that I sincerely apologize to my teammates, the organization, Coach (Jeff) Fisher, (general manager) Les Snead, my family, and friends.
“I’m deeply saddened by this but I plan to serve my four-game suspension and get back to playing football as soon as possible.”
So what was the substance that led to the failed drug test?
“I just don’t want to get into that right now,” Dunbar said. “That’s something we don’t want to talk about — we just want to move past.”
That was the only question the media was allowed to ask Dunbar, who was tearing up and was whisked away by the Rams’ media relations department. Fisher was not made available to the media Wednesday. Dunbar’s agent, Tony Fleming, did not respond to phone and text messages from the Post-Dispatch.
Dunbar finished second on the squad in tackles a year ago with 157 stops, playing the weakside spot. An aggressive, hard-hitting performer, Dunbar was fourth on the team in sacks (4½), tied for third in interceptions (two), and had two forced fumbles. His aggressiveness sometimes got him in trouble on pass defense, particularly when it came to reacting to play-action fakes.
But overall, the former New Orleans Saint was one of the best free-agent pickups in the league after signing a two-year, $3.05 million contract with the Rams following the 2011 season.
Until the start of the regular season, Dunbar can participate in all team activities, including practice and exhibition games. Once the suspension begins, he will not be able to participate in any team activities until Sept. 27, the day after the Rams’ Thursday night home game against the 49ers.
“You always feel bad any time a guy’s going to miss any particular part of the season,” veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon said. “But we’re all gonna support him, we’re all gonna sit there and say, ‘Hey, as soon as you get back, let’s get back to rolling and go forward with what we know we can do.’”
Witherspoon is expected to replace Dunbar in the starting lineup during the suspension. He has been listed as the backup right linebacker behind Dunbar on the team’s unofficial depth chart.
“With everything that’s going on, really it comes down to the fact that we’ve all got to step up,” Witherspoon said. “No matter where you’re asked to do it, what you’re asked to do, we’ve all got to pick up our game, we’ve all got to make sure we fill that hole when it happens.
“If I’m asked to step in and start, then that’s what I’ll do. If not, then I’m going to still be the same veteran leader that I’ve always wanted to be.”
Even though he’s the logical choice to step in for Dunbar, Witherspoon says he’s assuming nothing.
“I don’t make those assumptions and those are decisions way out of my pay grade,” Witherspoon said.
Other than Witherspoon, the Rams have next to no experience on the bench. Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates, Joseph LeBeau, and Jonathan Stewart are all undrafted rookies. Josh Hull is entering his fourth season, but he’s a middle linebacker and most of his NFL experience has come on special teams.
Sammy Brown, who was brought in as an undrafted linebacker in 2012, is now listed on the depth chart at defensive end. He has missed almost all of camp with a calf injury and remains sidelined.
Jabara Williams, who has been backing up starter Alec Ogletree at left linebacker, was on the Rams practice squad last season and has played in just seven NFL games (in 2011) – almost exclusively on special teams. Williams has been sidelined for much of training camp with a hamstring injury and still isn’t 100 percent.
Dunbar is the second Rams player who will miss the start of the season because of a league suspension. Running back Isaiah Pead must sit out the Sept. 8 opener against Arizona for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse. It would have been three players, because offensive guard Rokevious Watkins also was suspended for the Arizona game for a substance abuse violation. But Watkins was released at the start of training camp and ended up signing with Kansas City.
Dunbar is scheduled for unrestricted free agency at the end of this season, and missing a month of 2013 could hurt his earning power – either on the open market or if he re-signs with the Rams. The suspension will hurt him in the pocketbook in a couple of ways this season.
For one, missing four games will cost him just under $306,000 out of his base salary of $1.3 million. His contract also included provisions for an additional $1.25 million of incentives that could be earned this season, most of which were tied to playing time. Those incentives now probably are unreachable.
Last season, Dunbar made an additional $500,000 in incentives after a season in which he was on the field for 98.5 percent of the Rams’ defensive plays (1,060 of 1,076). His playing time on defense figured to decline anyway this season, because he has been replaced in the nickel package by Ogletree.