Opportunities abound for Rams rookie LBs

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As part of the Rams major roster makeover of 2012, seven undrafted rookie free agents made the team's opening day roster.

This year, it's unlikely the Rams will keep that many, but if there's one position where at least one rookie free agent seems destined to land a roster spot, it's linebacker.

That was a strong possibility even before the NFL suspended starting outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar for the first four games of the season because of violation of the policy on performance enhancing substances.

With Dunbar out of the picture, Rams coach Jeff Fisher acknowledged Thursday that veteran Will Witherspoon would replace him in the starting lineup. Having a veteran on hand makes for a logical move in taking Dunbar’s place but it also opens the door further for the team's three undrafted rookie linebackers to take a shot at making the roster.

Witherspoon represents the team's most experienced backup, but aside from him, the Rams have only one other linebacker, Josh Hull, with any starting experience. Meanwhile, rookies Ray-Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates and Jonathan Stewart find themselves jockeying for position behind the presumed starting group of James Laurinaitis, Witherspoon and Alec Ogletree.

The trio of Armstrong, Bates and Stewart will get its second game opportunity to make an impression on the Rams coaches Saturday night against Green Bay.

"I know where my place is on the team, and I just go out and give 110 percent every time, whether it's a special teams practice or a full game," Bates said. "I am just going out every day to prove to everybody, the coaches especially, that I can be out here and play in this league."

All three rookie linebackers have taken their turns making an early case to land a spot on the 53-man roster, particularly Armstrong and Bates, who both play on the outside.

Armstrong probably came to the Rams with the highest profile among the undrafted rookies. He played safety at Miami for two seasons, playing well enough to earn status as a potential future first-round pick before he was suspended seven games into his junior season and summarily dismissed from the team for violation of team rules.

Despite not playing in 2012, Armstrong appears to have knocked off the rust and made a successful transition to linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 227 pounds, Armstrong brings the speed and size of a safety to his new position. In the preseason opener against Cleveland, Armstrong played 37 defensive snaps and another 14 on special teams.

“Whatever chance I get, whenever coach puts me in there, I’m just trying to do my job and get it done every play,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong had his share of ups and downs in that game, posting three tackles but also garnering a $7,875 fine for a facemask penalty in the second quarter.

An injury to fellow backup outside 'backer Jabara Williams has allowed Armstrong to get plenty of reps with the second team, but like most undrafted rookie linebackers, his name must be made on special teams first.

"He didn't play at all last season, so there's a little bit of rust, but as far as a long guy, a good athlete, he's learning," special teams coach John Fassel said. "I believe he's passionate. I think he's a guy that we're going to probably need to contribute on teams -- all those 'backers."

Like Armstrong, Bates is undersized by NFL linebacker standards at 5-11, 212 pounds. For those watching, though, Bates plays much bigger than his size.

At the team's first special teams practice on July 27, Bates proved to be one of the most rugged players on the field, regularly mixing it up with the much bigger Hull.

"I have always had that (attitude)," Bates said. "Growing up, I was always smaller in height and size, so I was always feisty. I would always roughhouse, and they would just play my game, which is rough. Not everybody can do that, but that's my style of play."

That style has Bates working on nearly every special teams unit. He played 17 defensive snaps and 13 special teams plays, finishing with four tackles against the Browns.

"A lot of good stuff from him," Fassel said. "Every time he goes, you hear a crash. He uses his pads, he's a -- you can call it an undersized linebacker -- but he's feisty. He's fast-twitch; he is confident in his collisions, and I think from what I see is that he's a real passionate guy about (special) teams, which is prerequisite to being good on it as a young guy."

The Rams kept six linebackers out of training camp last year but had a far different composition to the group with older veterans such as Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh in place.

This year, there's no such veteran depth on the roster, leaving the opportunity for a couple or even all three of the undrafted rookies to land on the final 53.

How that trio fares on special teams will go a long way in making that final determination.

"No matter what the case may be, I am trying to go out there and prove something to every eye watching on a daily basis," Bates said, "that I'm here to play, and I'm here to stay."