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Rams draft analysis: Outside linebackers beefed up, but inside still needs help

Rams draft analysis: Outside linebackers beefed up, but inside still needs help
Rams linebacker Micah Kiser may have to fill a void left by Mark Barron, who signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. (John Bazemore / Associated Press)

As the Rams prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 1 of 8: Linebackers.

Seeking an edge-rushing presence, the Rams made a savvy trade-deadline deal for Dante Fowler last season.

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The former first-round draft pick helped the Rams make a Super Bowl run, and — after assessing the market — the franchise signed the pending free agent to a one-year, $12-million contract.

The Rams weren’t done working the edge.

They signed veteran linebacker Clay Matthews, attracting him with a winning culture and the chance to return to Southern California. The six-time Pro Bowl player, along with Fowler and third-year pro Samson Ebukam, are expected to provide the Rams with formidable threats while flanking star tackle Aaron Donald.

Ebukam, a starter in 2018, had an offseason knee procedure. He will be brought along slowly during offseason workouts in hopes he will be ready for training camp.

“You feel good with Dante, Clay and Samson,” coach Sean McVay said. “Samson’s history of being able to play both sides gives us some flexibility that we really like.”

The inside linebacker situation is more of a wait-and-see proposition.

Cory Littleton thrived in 2018 in his first season at middle linebacker. He was voted to the Pro Bowl as a special teams player, but his blossoming as a defensive playmaker and leader helped drive the balloting.

Now the Rams must find a way to replace Mark Barron, who signed a free-agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Second-year pro Micah Kiser is among the possible replacements. He is more stout but less versatile than Barron, a former safety.

“Really confident in his progression,” McVay said of Kiser. “He’s one of those guys you just don’t bet against.”

The Rams, as with all teams, are certain to be intrigued by pass rushers entering the April 25-27 draft in Nashville. They also could eye inside linebackers with some of their seven picks.

They will use offseason workouts to evaluate young linebackers such as second-year pros Travin Howard, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Justin Lawler and Trevon Young. Howard suffered an ankle injury early in training camp last year and spent the season on the practice squad. Okoronkwo suffered a broken foot at the start of offseason workouts and did not return to practice until after midseason.

Under contract for 2019: Dante Fowler ($12 million), Clay Matthews ($3.5 million), Cory Littleton ($3.1 million), Samson Ebukam ($796,753), Micah Kiser ($644,495), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo ($638,634), Justin Lawler ($588,435), Trevon Young ($570,000) and Travin Howard ($495,000).

Free agents: Four linebackers from the 2018 roster are gone. Barron, released by the Rams, signed with the Steelers. Free agents Ramik Wilson, Matt Longacre and Bryce Hager remain on the market. Rather than re-signing them or other free agents, the Rams would probably prefer to develop in-house backups.

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Draft: After the Rams re-signed Fowler, the immediate pressure to draft an edge rusher dissipated. That doesn’t mean the Rams will turn away their attention from finding one in a draft that is regarded as deep for defensive linemen and edge rushers.

Roster decisions: The loss of the versatile Barron left a void, but considering how offenses are morphing, the Rams can use safeties such as Eric Weddle, Marqui Christian and John Johnson in hybrid roles in specific situations.

NEXT: Defensive line.

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