A day after the NFL announced that starting linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar has been lost for the first four games of the 2013 due to a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, head coach Jeff Fisher responded strongly to losing one of the most productive defenders from a year ago.
“We’ve known about it for some time and, obviously, we’ve been dealing with it,’’ the coach said. “First and foremost, we’re very, very disappointed in his choices and his decisions. It’s selfish, it hurts the team, but we also see it as an opportunity to learn from a mistake. We discussed it with the entire squad last night and I think everybody understands the responsibility that each and every player has as far as taking care of himself and what you can do and what you can’t do.
“It’s behind us now.’’
Dunbar, 28, will miss the Arizona, Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco games in September. Signed to a two-year, $3.05 million deal prior to the 2012 season, the former New Orleans Saint was one of the top free-agent pickups in the league last year, finishing second on the squad in tackles (157) as a weakside linebacker.
The NFL doesn’t announce suspensions until the appeals process has been exhausted, which means the appeal has been heard or that Dunbar declined to appeal.
“He failed the performance-enhancing drug test,’’ Fisher said. “As far as what it was, I’m not going to go into specifics.’’
Until the start of the regular season, Dunbar can participate in all team activities, including practices and exhibition games. Once the suspension starts, he will not be able to take part in any team activities until Sept. 27, the day after the Rams’ Thursday night home game against the 49ers.
Will Witherspoon, in his 12th NFL season, will replace Dunbar in the starting lineup during the suspension and began getting some work alongside fellow starters James Laurinaitis and rookie Alec Ogletree during Thursday’s practice.
Fisher said the team was aware of Dunbar’s impending suspension when it signed Witherspoon to a one-year deal in mid July.
“But that wasn’t why we signed Will,’’ Fisher said, equating Dunbar’s absence to the loss of an injured player.
“It would make total sense for us right now to move Will Witherspoon up,’’ the coach said. “We’re glad he’s here; he’s started a lot of games. Then, we’ll make a decision when Jo-Lonn comes back as to who’s going to take that position.’’
In other words, there’s no guarantee the job will be Dunbar’s once he returns.
Witherspoon, who turns 33 on Monday, has played in 173 regular-season games and made 150 starts in 11 NFL seasons. This is his second stint in St. Louis. After playing his first four seasons in Carolina, he signed a free-agent deal with the Rams and played here from 2006 until a trade-deadline deal with Philadelphia in 2009.
He finished 2009 with the Eagles and has been with the Tennessee Titans for the last three years.
Fisher said that Dunbar will remain a contributor through the preseason.
“He’s going to get plenty of reps, but it’s not likely going to be with the starting unit just because we’re going to have to get Will ready to go and get familiar,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, we’re going to have two new faces at the linebacker position (to start) this year.’’
The Rams do not have much experience at linebacker. Josh Hull, a middle linebacker, has most of experience on special teams.
Ray Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Joseph LeBeau are all undrafted rookies.
Jabara Williams, who played on special teams in seven NFL games in 2011, was on the Rams practice squad a year ago but has been sidelined with a hamstring injury this year.
Sammy Brown, an undrafted free agent in 2012, is listed on the depth chart at defensive end and has missed most of camp with a calf injury.
“It remains to be seen whether or not we express an interest and go out and continue to look to build our (linebacker) unit,’’ Fisher said.
In mid June when Witherspoon made his free-agent visit to Rams Park, the team also brought in veteran linebackers Takeo Spikes and Chris Gocong. Both remain available.
The Rams, who host the Green Bay Packers 7 p.m. Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome, will practice today from 11:15 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.
The workout is free and open to the public.