It may not seem that way watching him indiscriminately hunt down ball carriers and bring them to the ground with maximum impact for three hours on Sunday afternoons but for the first time in his still young NFL career, Dunbar has found in St. Louis the contentment he’s sought since he came into the league nearly five years ago.
“My first year here has been amazing,” Dunbar said. “It’s a dream come true for me. It’s hard to put in words in terms of the opportunity, the situation, the way it’s turned out, it’s been a blessing.”
During a five-minute interview earlier this week, Dunbar referred to his opportunity to come to the Rams, take over as the starting weak side linebacker and all that comes with it as a blessing a total of 10 times.
And why wouldn’t he? After toiling in relative obscurity in New Orleans for the first four years of his career after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2008, Dunbar only wanted a chance.
For most of those four years in the Big Easy, his time there was anything but. He spent days wondering what could be if he would just get an opportunity. Although he knew making the roster would come as a by product of playing special teams and remaining patient, Dunbar knew there was more out there for him if he’d just get a chance.
“I spent my whole career thinking that,” Dunbar said. “I got a little chance last year being able to play and be counted on a little bit but I spent my whole career just begging and pleading and praying that I would one day just get that little opportunity where the door is open and I do whatever can to make sure I keep that door open.”
After signing a two-year contract with the Rams on April 2, Dunbar has burst through that door and essentially ripped it off the hinges. With 130 tackles (second on the team), 3.5 sacks (fourth on the team), two interceptions (third on the team) and 14 quarterback hits (third on the team), one could make a legitimate case that Dunbar has been not only one of the team’s most valuable offseason additions but also its most valuable defensive player.
“He’s done very well,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “He’s done a very good job incorporating his skill sets into how we’ve blended this defense together. JD’s done a very, very nice job, he really has. He’s been a guy that we’ve been able to depend on. He’s a guy that it’s very, very important to. He’s a professional and there’s a huge difference in getting paid to play this game and being a professional. He’s a pro.”
In his first three seasons I the league, Dunbar started 13 games, playing all over the Saints defense but never quite getting a chance to be comfortable and solidify a starting spot for himself. Still, he signed a contract extension with New Orleans on July 29, 2011.
That season, Dunbar made more starts than he had in any of the previous three years combined, getting five games at middle linebacker and nine on the strong side. He made the most of his hard-earned chance.
Dunbar posted 90 tackles with a sack and two forced fumbles but when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams departed and former Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo took over as Saints defensive coordinator, Dunbar was deemed expendable.
Declared a free agent on March 13 of this year, Dunbar went searching for the place that he thought would be the best fit. Armed with knowledge of Williams’ system and aware of the long standing need to find a running mate for middle linebacker
By that time, it had become clear that Gregg Williams was going to be suspended for the season but that didn’t mean Dunbar was without a Williams advocating on his behalf in St. Louis.
Blake Williams, the son of Gregg and Dunbar’s linebackers coach in New Orleans was now filling the same role in St. Louis and lobbied for the addition of Dunbar. When the interest became mutual and the Rams offered the security of a two-year deal, Dunbar wasted little time signing on the dotted line.
“The opportunity came in St. Louis and it’s been truly a blessing for me mentally, physically, emotionally,” Dunbar said. “The first game we won, I hugged Blake and I thanked him for bringing me here. I appreciate that. It’s going to always be special to me.”
Soon after signing, Dunbar plugged right into the weak side linebacker spot alongside Laurinaitis but he was also taken aback a bit when he realized that his presumed head start on the defense was essentially non-existent.
The defensive scheme Dunbar played in New Orleans was as basic as it comes in terms of responsibilities. More often than not, the Saints played cover 1 or cover 0 with the occasional Cover 2 sprinkled in. Dunbar’s job was to blitz on pass downs and chase the ball on runs.
When Dunbar got a look at the amalgamation of defenses that coach Jeff Fisher, McGinnis, Williams and the defensive staff were piecing together for their scheme in St. Louis, he saw something far more complicated.
“There’s some stuff we ran in New Orleans but this defense is actually kind of night and day from that,” Dunbar said. “Here we play a little of everything. We’ve got Cover 4, Cover 2, Cover 3, we play buzz, we play trap, we play fire zone, we play zero, we play single, we play everything here where in New Orleans the offense knew we would be single, zero or Cover 2. I think that speaks volumes to what we can do up front with our front four and we can let those guys hunt and we can play coverage on the back end and then when we need to we can switch coverage and throw some pressure in.”
While one might think the drastic difference in defense would be frustrating for Dunbar, he quickly embraced it for a number of reasons. First, it would allow him the chance to learn along with his teammates and helped him forge a strong bond with many of his defensive teammates including Laurinaitis.
Second, Dunbar knew it would make him a more well-rounded linebacker, the type that can do just about anything asked of him on the field.
Expanding his mind as well as his game has only contributed to Dunbar’s happiness.
“It’s been fun to learn it on the fly and be able to know that I have the mental capacity to learn it and be able to be effective on Sundays,” Dunbar said. “I am a different person from who I was last year. I am much happier right now.”
The other side of that has been the chance to settle in at one position and stay there for a whole season.
Although most of his time with the Saints was spent in the middle and at strong side, the way the Rams use the weak side ‘backer isn’t too much different than what he’d do in the middle, the position he said he was most comfortable at upon arrival in St. Louis.
“The responsibilities are a little different and everything is not flooded to you necessarily but it allows you to range and go get the ball,” Dunbar said. “It just allows you to be a free hitter and be able to make those plays and it’s been fun. It’s been a challenge at times but it’s been fun learning the defense and learning these guys and how they play and being able to mold my game around what we needed here from me.”
With Dunbar in place alongside young, long term pieces like Laurinaitis, ends
It’s a group that already ranks ninth in the league in total defense but with so many young players at its core and more time to evolve into the many parts of the scheme, Dunbar believes he’s got a chance to be a part of something special now that he’s settled in St. Louis.
“If we continue to build and get better individually and as a defense, I believe we’ll be a top 5 defense next year, the year after, I just think we have the ability to be that,” Dunbar said. “It’s just about how we prepare ourselves in the offseason and take on the challenges for next year.”