<
>

Is there a role for RB Lance Dunbar in the Rams' offense?

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- If you're wondering whether the Los Angeles Rams will actually trade Tavon Austin before Tuesday's 1 p.m. PT deadline, well, Sean McVay said Monday that "Tavon's role is only going to increase as we move forward."

McVay, the Rams' first-year head coach, was responding to a question about how Lance Dunbar fits in his offense, which is really the more pressing matter.

Dunbar, a sixth-year running back who was previously with the Dallas Cowboys, officially practiced for the first time on Monday. The Rams now have 21 days to take him off the physically unable to perform list, either by cutting him, adding him to the active roster or placing him on injured reserve.

McVay was non-committal, saying a decision could come "as soon as [Tuesday] or as late as those three weeks."

Dunbar was signed with the hope he could fill a role similar to the one Chris Thompson occupied for McVay's offense with the Washington Redskins, as a change-of-pace back who specializes in catching passes out of the backfield. But Dunbar was dealing with an injured left knee even before the Rams signed him, which forced him to sit out organized team activities, training camp and the first eight weeks of the regular season.

During that time, star running back Todd Gurley carved out a major role in the passing game and is now a legitimate dual threat. The change-of-pace back, meanwhile, has been Austin, the veteran receiver who is mostly catching screen passes and providing the threat of a jet sweep.

Austin's role, it seems, is similar to the one the Rams were initially hoping Dunbar would fill.

"You could think that," McVay said. "Tavon is a guy that we're going to continue to try to find ways to get the ball in his hands."

So, where does that leave Dunbar?

"This offense is designed to make big plays, so any back that's in the game is going to have opportunities to make big plays," Dunbar said. "I just want to be a part of that."

Dunbar, with 1,068 scrimmage yards in 54 career games, made the Cowboys' roster as an undrafted free agent in 2012. He had a breakout game against the Oakland Raiders late in 2013, rushing for 82 yards on 12 carries, but also sustained a knee injury that forced him to miss the final four weeks. He was on his way toward establishing a role in 2015, with 21 receptions for 215 yards through the first three games, but he tore his ACL, MCL and patellar tendon on a kickoff return.

Dunbar was ready to go by the start of the 2016 season, returning a lot sooner than expected, but he never felt right. Shortly after signing with the Rams, Dunbar admitted to rushing his way back and said he didn't feel right until about midway through the season, by which point Ezekiel Elliott had established himself as a focal point in Dallas' offense.

The balky knee Dunbar nursed throughout this year probably stems from that devastating injury from 2015, but Dunbar himself doesn't know for sure.

He just knows it has been a long process.

"It felt like forever," Dunbar said. "This is probably the longest I've been without playing football since I was 6 years old. It was tough, very challenging, but I'm a mentally tough person. I’ve been through a lot, and I know how to get through situations like this."

Dunbar has been running for about six weeks, progressing steadily. He's been full speed for nearly a month, and McVay called his physical state "very encouraging." But the Rams have moved on without him. Gurley is doing a little bit of everything, while Austin -- costing nearly $15 million toward this year's salary cap, a major obstacle in trading him -- has been able to carve his own niche in McVay's scheme. Dunbar also has experience returning kickoffs, but Pharoh Cooper has excelled there, too.

Adding Dunbar to the active roster may mean having to slip the elusive, shifty Justin Davis through waivers to get him on the practice squad, which may not happen given how well he ran during the preseason. It could also mean an even lesser role for Malcolm Brown, who has served as Gurley's traditional backup.

Dunbar admitted Monday he would probably need more time before being ready to play in games, so it's probably in the Rams' best interest to wait it out, maximizing their three-week window.

It's a luxury they can currently afford.

"We've got a lot of playmakers who have stayed healthy and are available, so it's a positive problem," McVay said. "I think it will kind of naturally sort itself out as far as getting him back on the practice field and seeing how those things work and fit."