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Rams

Linebackers are out to prove they are not the weak link in Rams defense

IRVINE, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, JULY 26, 2018: Linebacker Cory Littleton (58), flanked by defensive line
Rams linebacker Cory Littleton, flanked by defensive linemen Michael Brockers (90) and Ndamukong Suh at practice, says he is aware of outside skepticism about the team’s linebackers. “We can’t expect people to expect much out of us, but we plan on proving them wrong,” he says.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Three former first-round draft picks, including the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, could form the starting defensive line.

The secondary features three cornerbacks with a combined eight Pro Bowl selections.

By contrast, Rams linebackers are mostly unheralded and largely inexperienced. The projected starters include six-year veteran Mark Barron and three players with only eight combined starts among them.

The linebacker corps is regarded as a potential weak link for a team that is generating Super Bowl buzz after an offseason of high-profile trades and free-agent signings.

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Middle linebacker Cory Littleton understands outside skepticism about a relatively unknown and unproven group.

“We can’t expect people to expect much out of us,” the third-year pro said, “but we plan on proving them wrong.”

That mission begins Thursday night when the Rams open the preseason against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. The Rams traveled to Maryland on Sunday and the teams will hold joint practices Monday and Tuesday.

During the offseason, the Rams remade a defense that ranked 19th in 2017. They added star tackle Ndamukong Suh to play alongside Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. They acquired cornerbacks Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Sam Shields to bolster the secondary.

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The unit’s makeover included a purge of three starting linebackers: The Rams traded Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree, and did not re-sign Connor Barwin.

The goal was to provide defensive coordinator Wade Phillips with players who fit his hybrid 3-4 scheme.

Barron, the lone holdover, is coming off shoulder and heel surgeries that have kept him out of training-camp practices. He did not play during the 2017 preseason, and could follow the same plan heading into the Sept. 10 season opener at Oakland.

Barron, 28, began his NFL career as a safety. He is “a special player,” Phillips said, because of his ability to stop the run as an inside linebacker and also cover receivers and running backs like a defensive back.

“He gives you a lot of versatility,” Phillips said.

Littleton, 24, evolved into a special-teams standout after the Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Last season, he also became a valuable backup and started four games in place of Barron.

In the wake of Ogletree’s departure, Phillips shifted Littleton to the middle.

With practice, the transition is becoming “natural,” Littleton said. He is the defensive signal-caller but many of his responsibilities are unchanged.

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“This is his chance,” Phillips said.

Samson Ebukam, a 2017 fourth-round draft pick from Eastern Washington, moves into the edge-rushing spot that Quinn played last season. Ebukam recorded two sacks as a rookie, and said that running down quarterbacks is “almost natural” for him.

“It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life,” he said.

Matt Longacre signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He was a valuable backup last season, getting 5½ sacks before a back injury that required surgery sidelined him the final two games.

Linebackers coach Joe Barry said Ebukam and Longacre showed last season that they were ready for larger roles.

“They proved that, ‘Oh, hey, this isn’t too big for me, and I can be a starter,’” he said.

To add depth and create competition, the Rams drafted linebackers Micah Kiser, Obo Okoronkwo, Trevon Young and Travin Howard, and drafted rush ends John Franklin-Myers and Justin Lawler. They also signed veterans Ramik Wilson and Ryan Davis to bolster a linebacker corps that includes Bryce Hager.

Wilson started 17 games in three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. The “classic veteran” as Barry describes him, is rooming with Barron during training camp and playing in his spot with the first-team defense.

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Davis never started a game in six seasons with three teams. But he is expected to get an extended look in the wake of a biceps injury that prevented Longacre from making the trip to Baltimore.

The four starting linebackers might not be determined until the week of the season opener. Barring a trade or significant signing during training camp it will be a low-profile group.

At least to start.

“Once we put the pads on and get into the preseason games,” Barry said, “it’s all going to sort out.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein


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