At this point in the offseason last year, the St. Louis Rams looked to be scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for competent talent to place around James Laurinaitis. Jo-Lonn Dunbar had been signed out of New Orleans, but, at the time, was nothing more than a middle-tier outside linebacker in a pathetically awful defense. Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan were both overly-aged veteran, likely looking at their last shot at starting reps in the NFL. We found out, as the season progressed, that Dunbar was a “diamond in the rough,” putting up Top 10 numbers in several categories. We also found out that Haggan and McIntosh “were what we thought they were,” forcing the St. Louis’ defense to shift away from their 4-3 base defense in favor of the nickel package. Naturally, both players were not re-signed at the end of the season.
Fast forward to now, and it appears as though the St. Louis Rams have flipped the script on the position. With their second pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Rams selected, arguably, the best 4-3 outside linebacker prospect in the class. Most talent scouts and NFL pundits had Alec Ogletree as a Top 10 prospect overall, but dropped him significantly due to “red-flag” issues. Good for the Rams…
Now, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting that Will Witherspoon is the “favorite” to join the St. Louis linebacker corps, potentially beating out Takeo Spikes and a handful of other veteran backers. Witherspoon last played for the Rams in 2009, listed as the starting weakside linebacker, after having been the middle linebacker for most of his tenure in St. Louis. He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he alternated between inside and outside linebacker. Witherspoon will have just turned 33 years old at the start of the 2013 season, easily classifying the man as a veteran player. However, with experience under both Jeff Fisher and Dave McGinnis in their time at Tennessee, it is not surprising that the coaching staff is leaning towards signing him.
So, the question remains: Is outside linebacker a position of strength on the roster, assuming they acquire Witherspoon?
It may not necessarily be a strength, especially in comparison to other positions on the defensive side of the football; but, that doesn’t mean it is not vastly improved. With a knowledgeable veteran in the defense, the Rams should feel completely comfortable with their “starting three” in the second level. James Laurinaitis has been a Top 10 middle linebacker for the past three season, Jo-Lonn Dunbar played at an elite level last season, and Alec Ogletree is purported to be the best outside linebacker from the previous draft class. The addition of Witherspoon will not only provide a depth player, one with extensive experience at each linebacker position, but, more importantly, someone who understands the defensive “style” of Jeff Fisher and who can help out a young player like Alec Ogletree, who is transitioning from playing the 3-4 inside linebacker position at Georgia.
Adding moderate-quality depth is important on any roster, especially those with experience in the defensive system. However, with the Rams now having two major, recently “red-flagged” draftees on their defense, adding top-quality leadership to the lockerroom is never a bad idea. With veterans in Chris Long, Cortland Finnegan, James Laurinaitis, and, now, Will Witherspoon, it would be tough to imagine any defensive player sliding off the rails. Will Witherspoon might not necessarily improve the linebacking corps in terms of his contributions on the field on Sunday, but he could certainly help in continuing the overall transformation at Rams Park from a perennial Top 5 drafter to a playoff contender.