St. Louis Rams Position Analysis: Linebackers

Last year: The Rams return two starting linebackers from 2012, and both had solid seasons last year.

James Laurinaitis again was the quarterback of the defense, a role the man in the middle has held since he got to St. Louis in 2009. He totaled 142 tackles for the second consecutive year.

In Rams coach Jeff Fisher’s 4-3 defense, he was flanked by free agent addition Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The Rams were pretty much in the middle of the pack in terms of overall defensive statistics: 15th out of 32 NFL teams in opponent passing yards, surrendering 225.1 yards per game. They also came in 15th in opponent rushing yards, giving up an average of 117.5 yards every outing.

Coach: Frank Bush was added to Rams coach Jeff Fisher’s staff in January, replacing former linebackers coach Blake Williams. He most recently held the same position with the Tennessee Titans, and has been in the NFL coaching business going on 23 years. Bush is one of four Rams defensive coaches who previously had experience as a coordinator.

Three questions:

1. Will Ogletree be the player everyone expects?

Before Alec Ogletree tumbled down the NFL draft board due to off-the-field issues, he was expected to be a top 10 pick. The Rams will need him to play like that if their unit is to be strong. Ogletree will be expected to start, and Fisher has already announced that Ogletree will be the left-side linebacker, meaning the Rams are discarding a strong-side, weak-side system used in the past. The Georgia product therefore will be expected to know how to play both strong and weak side. That’s asking a lot from a rookie, especially when Ogletree’s desire for every-down physicality has been questioned when he’s linked to a strong-side role.

2. Can Dunbar repeat last year’s performance?

Dunbar joined the team from New Orleans for a modest contract, then started 16 games and racked up 115 tackles (91 solo, 24 assisted), 4.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. His specialty was stuffing the run; Pro Football Focus ranked him third in run defense among outside linebackers. As the right-side starter this season, Dunbar will be expected to do it again.

3. Will the team bring in another linebacker?

If all goes as planned, the Rams will feature three young, athletic linebackers in the heart of Fisher’s 4-3 defense. But what if one gets hurt? That’s where the Rams run into trouble because depth at the position falls off fast. Need proof? Look at what the Rams did after organized team activities. They reportedly brought in multiple free agents — veterans such as Takeo Spikes, Will Witherspoon and Chris Gocong — for visits. None has signed with the team — yet. But it’s likely the team will add someone before training camp.

Quote: “He’s a very talented young player that has a big upside. He’s picking up things very well. He has great athletic ability. He’s showing his football intelligence. He’s been able to pick up the schemes and been able to adapt and usually he’s been making plays. He’s got his hands on some balls and things like that. We’re pleased with him and look for big things from him this season.” — Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton on Ogletree

What others are saying: In its preseason annual, Lindy’s gives Rams linebackers a rating of 7 (on a 1-10 scale). It wrote: “James Laurinaitis remains the anchor in the middle of the defense, and was one of the best impact tacklers in the league last season. Jo-Lonn Dunbar played well on the weak side last season but he could move to the strong side if rookie Alex Ogletree is a quick study and plays like the Rams expect. Rams coaches compare the gumby-like Ogletree to Keith Bulluck, a longtime Titans linebacker when Fisher and several Rams assistants were in Tennessee. Oddly, both were the 30th picks in the draft and started out as safeties.”

Bottom line: This could be the best group of linebackers the Rams have put on the field in a decade — if things pan out. Or, one costly injury could derail the position entirely. The Rams need to keep their three starters healthy and make some moves to add depth.

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