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Linebacker Alec Ogletree's move to the middle looms as the key to Rams' defense

The second in a series of occasional stories on the Rams' depth by position, as the team prepares for the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today, the linebackers:

For the first time in eight years, the Rams are set to begin a season with a new middle linebacker.

Alec Ogletree, a first-round draft pick in 2013, is replacing James Laurinaitis, who signed recently with the New Orleans Saints after being released by the Rams.

Ogletree, 24, played the weak-side linebacker position his first two seasons. Now he will take on much more responsibility in the middle.

"It's going to be a great challenge for me — probably my biggest challenge that I've had my whole football career," Ogletree said this month after a team meeting in Manhattan Beach. "I'm definitely excited about it and ready to get the ball rolling."

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Ogletree, 6 feet 2 and 245 pounds, got off to a fast start in 2015 before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 4 against the Arizona Cardinals. The situation enabled Mark Barron to move into a hybrid safety/linebacker role in the final year of his contract.

Barron finished the season as the team's leading tackler, and the Rams this month re-signed him to a five-year contract reportedly worth $45 million. He is set to play on the weak side.

Former UCLA standout Akeem Ayers is on track to start again at the strong-side position. Ayers played three-plus seasons for the Tennessee Titans and part of one for the New England Patriots before signing with the Rams before last season.

Bryce Hager, a seventh-round draft pick last year from Baylor, and Cameron Lynch, an undrafted free agent from Syracuse, also are on the roster. So the Rams might attempt to bolster the group with a veteran free-agent before the draft.

But Ogletree will be the key.

C

oach Jeff Fisher and General Manager Les Snead said Ogletree's intelligence would enable him to smoothly transition to the middle.

"He's a very smart player," Snead said. "So he can handle the mental side. He's got plenty of size but he's also fast and quick."

Laurinaitis departed as the Rams' all-time leading tackler, a veteran who knew every nuance of coordinator Gregg Williams' 4-3 scheme.

Ogletree said he learned from playing alongside Laurinaitis.

"He's a great player and, pretty much, he helped me since the day I walked in," Ogletree said. "It was sad to see him go but I take the position knowing that I learned some stuff from him as far as how to be a leader on the field. How to be accountable. Just be there in the time of need. Just be dependable."

This will be the first time Ogletree will play middle linebacker in more than spot duty.

"It will be a different experience now that I have to know everything that goes on and basically be the quarterback of the defense," he said.

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Ogletree said he was prepared to spend extra time preparing for the challenge. He will not change the way he plays, he said, but he is cognizant of the added responsibilities that come with playing middle linebacker.

"I do have to change my mind-set of having to tell somebody what they need to know," he said. "Playing [middle linebacker], you have to know all the other 10 positions."

Draft prospects

The Rams have the 15th overall pick, two second-round picks and slots in the third, fourth and sixth rounds.

Barron is now in the fold for the long term and Snead has spoken of a desire to extend Ogletree before he becomes eligible for free agency, but depth is an immediate issue at linebacker.

The Rams are in need of a top receiver and have said they would seek to upgrade at quarterback through the draft. If they don't trade up with their first and second-round picks, a top linebacker prospect is not out of the question. But the later rounds are probably more likely spots.

In his first mock draft, The Times' Sam Farmer projected UCLA's Myles Jack as the eighth overall pick and Ohio State's Darron Lee as the 18th. They were the only linebackers in Farmer's first round.

Georgia's Leonard Floyd, Ohio State's Joshua Perry, Alabama's Reggie Ragland, Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith and USC's Su'a Cravens are among other linebackers in the draft.

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter: @LATimesklein

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 27, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Middle management a key for Rams" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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