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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- One day after the NFL announced the four-game suspension of St. Louis Rams starting linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, coach Jeff Fisher expressed his disappointment in Dunbar and made it clear that his starting spot may not be waiting for him upon his return.
Dunbar received a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances Wednesday afternoon. Fisher did not comment after it was announced but said he spoke to the team about it Wednesday night.
"First and foremost, we are very, very disappointed in his choices and his decisions," Fisher said. "It's selfish, it hurts the team but we also see it as an opportunity to learn from a mistake, so we discussed it with the entire squad last night and I think everybody understands the responsibilities that each and every player has as far as taking care of themselves and what you can do and what you can't do."
Fisher went on to acknowledge that the Rams have known about the suspension for some time, including before they signed veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon on July 22. Witherspoon is the expected replacement for Dunbar and took the bulk of the repetitions with the first-team defense in Thursday's practice.
Fisher also said that when Dunbar is able to return to the active roster on Sept. 27, the team would evaluate whether Witherspoon would continue as the starter or Dunbar would return to his original spot.
"It would make total sense for us right now to move Will Witherspoon up," Fisher said. "We're glad he's here. He's started a lot of games and then we'll make a decision when Jo-Lonn comes back as to who is going to take that position."
Dunbar remains eligible to practice with the team but his practice workload will not remain as heavy as it was before the suspension as the team prepares for the season opener on Sept. 8 against Arizona.
Witherspoon is expected to join rookie Alec Ogletree as new starters at linebacker, flanking middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.
"(Dunbar) is going to get plenty of reps but more than likely it's not going to be with the starting unit," Fisher said. "Just because we are going to have to get Will ready to go and get familiar. For all intents and purposes, we'll have two new faces at the linebacker position this year."
Dunbar started all 16 games in 2012, finishing second on the team in tackles with 115. He's in the final year of a two-year deal and scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Witherspoon is entering his 12th NFL season and is beginning his second stint with the Rams. He played for Fisher in Tennessee in 2010, starting 16 games and finishing with 99 tackles and two interceptions.
Witherspoon, who will turn 33 Sunday, spent last year with the Titans primarily in a backup role. He played in 14 games with five starts as he finished with 47 tackles, a sack and an interception.
Moving forward, Fisher's message to the team wasn't much different than what it would be had someone suffered a serious injury.
"We're looking at this as it's behind us now," Fisher said. "We are going to learn from the mistake and unfortunately in this business, sometimes you have a player that goes down because of injury and we look at it that way."