Out with the old, in with the new. This seems to be the NFL's modus operendi; once a player gets too old or his services become replaceable, a younger player is there to take the reigns.
For the St. Louis Rams, this might be occurring within the linebacker ranks.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar (6-foot, 226 lbs) is the Rams' third linebacker. Out of the three starting linebackers – James Laurinaitis (1,077 snaps) and Alec Ogletree (1,055) being the other two – Dunbar played the least amount of snaps (425 snaps) in 2013. That is more than a 60-percent drop-off in playing time. Obviously, Dunbar's time was affected by his four-game suspension at the beginning of the season. However, the main reason for his lack of PT is him coming off the field in pass situations in favor of a third cornerback.
After his 4-game delay, Dunbar did not regain his 2012 form. In 2013, Jo-Lonn amassed a total of 39 combined tackles (solo and assisted), zero sacks, zero interceptions, and zero forced fumbles. That is an enormous drop-off from his 2012 stat line: 115 tackles, 4.5 sacks-two interceptions, two forced fumbles. It’s safe to say Dunbar's regression was due to factors that go beyond his suspension and playing time.
Waiting in the wings is 2013 undrafted free agent Ray-Ray Armstrong (6-3, 234 lbs).
While Armstrong did not play much on defense – only 21 defensive snaps – he did make a name for himself on special teams. He led the team with 12 special teams tackles and had a fumble recovery to his name. That’s not much of a stat-line, but Ray-Ray surely has displayed play-making ability, relentless pursuit, and a knack for headbustin' hits.
Dunbar will be 29 at the start of the season, and his better years in the league are likely behind him. He's only had two good seasons to begin with – 2011 (79 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles) and 2012. Before that, he has been pretty pedestrian.
Ray-Ray has youth, athleticism, and tenacity on his side. He's a ruthless player, just like Jo-Lonn. At this point, his only deficiencies are penalties and his inexperience. Those are the only things keeping him from supplanting Dunbar.
Dunbar signed a two-year, $2.05 million deal this offseason. The Rams can easily move on after this season if Dunbar is unable to return to form. His deal also makes it possible for him to stay on as veteran depth.
Whether as a starter or not, Armstrong will be seeing substantially more snaps on defense this season. The team let veteran Will Witherspoon walk this offseason. The only other option at linebacker is fellow special teams ace,