Following a three-year wait to finally receive a starting opportunity in the NFL, linebacker
Dunbar finished his first season as a starter with 90 tackles, a sack, two forced fumbles and seven passes defended in 14 starts. Those 14 starts were more than he had in his first three seasons combined.
Finally, Dunbar felt like he had made an impact on the defense and was poised to settle into a more regular role in the lineup. It was quite a step up for a player who the previous year hadn’t even received a tender offer as a restricted free agent.
But the Saints made Dunbar no promises entering this offseason and when he became an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, he went looking for two things: a defense in which he could feel comfortable and an opportunity to become a full time starter.
Dunbar found both in St. Louis, signing a two-year contract with the Rams in early April.
“My connection with (linebackers coach) Blake Williams was one of the things that got me out here,” Dunbar said. “I know Blake, Blake is a good guy. I had a great opportunity to come here and have a position to play and start and make an impact on a defense so I thought it was the best opportunity and that’s why I took it.”
Indeed, Dunbar found that perfect mix of comfort and opportunity with the Rams despite interest from other teams looking for help at linebacker.
Dunbar spent his first four seasons with Williams and his father Gregg Williams in New Orleans where he became acclimated with the same defense now being run in St. Louis.
In fact, Dunbar played all three linebacker positions in this system and has enough knowledge of each spot that he could conceivably play MIC, WIL or SAM without any hiccups.
The relationship Dunbar forged with Williams made him feel comfortable with the Rams on a number of levels and made signing in St. Louis something of a slam dunk.
Upon meeting head coach Jeff Fisher, Dunbar was further sold on the idea of the Rams.
“I had heard a lot of good things about coach Fisher from coaches and players,” Dunbar said. “He’s a no nonsense kind of guy and he gets out there and gives his players an opportunity to play with a little bit of a free spirit so that’s something that definitely attracts me. If you can be under that type of tutelage, that kind of attracts you as a player.”
Despite those strong relationships, nothing attracted Dunbar to the Rams more than the vast land of opportunity that awaited him at the linebacker position.
At the time of his signing, the Rams had just three linebackers –
In other words, there was a bright flashing vacancy sign on both outside linebacker positions. Considering his familiarity with the defense at all three spots, Dunbar found a situation in which he’d almost certainly step into the starting group on his arrival.
“That’s the main thing with me coming to St. Louis is just the opportunity,” Dunbar said. “That was my No. 1 priority, which meant more to me than money. It was just about the opportunity to get a chance to play and to make an impact on a defense. That’s what I wanted most and that’s what I was able to get here.”
Although the bulk of Dunbar’s NFL starts have come in the middle, it’s the one position that he’s not likely to play in St. Louis because of Laurinaitis’ presence though he could potentially serve as a backup in the middle should Laurinaitis have injuries.
During the first couple of weeks of Organized Team Activities, Dunbar has worked almost exclusively on the weak side. At 6 foot, 226 pounds, Dunbar is an athletic, aggressive type who is considered capable of making plays from sideline to sideline.
It’s not a certainty that Dunbar will stay on the weak side though it’s been his home in the early going. Fisher likes that Dunbar can step in just about anywhere.
“He played very well in the system and he's played all three positions in the system,” Fisher said. “So that gives us flexibility there. We can plug him wherever. And right now, he's an asset as the defense goes in because he has a good understanding of it.”
Dunbar showed a bit of a preference toward playing in the middle because that’s where he can see the big picture of the defense but indicates no worries about working on the outside. He played on the strong side for most of his chances before 2011.
“I’m just here to play ball,” Dunbar said. ‘Whatever they need me to do, I’m ready to do. I’m familiar with all three linebacker positions, I understand my reads at those three positions so I am ready to do whatever coach Fisher wants me to do here.”
Dunbar – whose first name comes from a combination of his cousin Joe and his uncle Lonnie – said the defensive scheme the Rams are using isn’t easy to comprehend for a linebacker but it does become easier as you get comfortable.
Learning it from the inside out has sped up that process for Dunbar.
“You have to see it through the position you are playing because they are all different reads,” Dunbar said. “Every position kind of looks different. In this defense it’s a little easier to play MIC linebacker because you can see the whole thing and then playing outside you have to see it in parts. It’s a little complicated but once you learn the whole playbook, it’s a lot easier, they are almost interchangeable.”
Now, with his first real opportunity to go through an offseason as a projected starter, Dunbar is hoping that for once, his role doesn’t have to change much.