Examining the Los Angeles Rams Inside Linebacker Competition

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The Los Angeles Rams have proven under general manager Les Snead that they will not break the bank to keep their linebackers long-term. This is the same organization that gave former first-round selection and team-captain Alec Ogletree a lucrative, long term contract extension and then promptly traded him away to free cap space.

Every team has a method to its madness. Snead’s is not to spend top dollar on linebackers – the Rams do not do it.

That brings us to who is in the linebacker room right now. We will go over each player and talk about the strengths, weaknesses, and the starting potential of each player.

Cory Littleton, 25 years old

First off, we’ll take a look as to why the Rams were so quick to get rid of Ogletree. The real reason, outside of the contract, is Cory Littleton – an undrafted free agent out of Washington –  that missed all of the beginning of camp due to graduation rules.

Littleton came on strong in college as a swiss army knife that could rush the passer, stop the run,  and drop in coverage. However, a positionless player at the time, he found himself going undrafted.

Once considered as a long shot to make the Rams roster, Littleton was scratching and clawing his way onto the special teams unit. He displayed enough for coaches to keep him around, which of course led to his 2016 Rams Rookie of the Year campaign. The main reason for that award was his ruthlessness on special teams which included blocking multiple punts.

His rookie year is what got him noticed as a player on the Rams, but his sophomore season was when he made his mark on defense. After Mark Barron‘s injury, he was forced to fill in on the base defense.

This was the moment the Rams started to see a potential future for Littleton. His performance in the playoff-clinching game against the Tennessee Titans was something else. Littleton in his first start finished with an interception, a sack, a pass breakup, a tackle for a loss, two hits on the quarterback,  and seven tackles. Barron did come back to finish the season, but that was enough for the Rams to see they had something in the Husky product.

With the Rams feeling comfortable with Littleton, the team traded Ogletree, forcing the former undrafted free agent into a starting role. Littleton started next to free agent pickup Ramik Wilson at the beginning of the 2018 season while Barron was recovering from an Achilles injury.

Littleton finished his third year in the NFL and first season as a starter with 125 tackles, four sacks, nine tackles for a loss, four quarterback hits, three interceptions, 13 pass breakups, and one touchdown. He then carried his playmaking ability into the playoffs racking up 29 tackles, a tackle for a loss, three pass breakups and of course, an interception in the Super Bowl.

The Rams linebacker enters his fourth year with the Rams and his second in a full-time starting role. He just signed a one-year restricted free agent tender. This year could be the last one for Littleton in Los Angeles if his price tag is deemed too high. However, right now, there isn’t a linebacker on the roster that the Rams would pick over Littleton.

 

Micah Kiser, 24 years old

The 2018 fifth-round pick out of Virginia has been a fan favorite from the get-go, but Micah Kiser is going to have to prove it in his second season. The Rams let go of Barron and are seemingly giving the keys to the car to Kiser – a player that has never started a game on defense.

Kiser’s biggest thing going back to college had been his leadership, his tackling ability, and his strength in defending the run. However, but his lack of athleticism is what ultimately pushed him down in the NFL draft.

Strengths

Weaknesses

The former Virginia linebacker played in every game last year on special teams for the Rams- a similar career path to that of Littleton.

One thing that is important by Kiser’s game is that he seemingly brings everything to the table that Wade Phillips uses on his defense. Kiser can blitz, and he had 19 sacks in college to prove it. He can get off blocks consistently and can tackle judging by his 408 career tackles at Virginia.

Another thing to like about Kiser is his bigger and bulkier frame of 244 pounds as opposed to the 220-pound Barron. We will find out this year if Kiser is worth developing, starting, and keeping around moving forward. However, the one question is the athleticism, and if that becomes a problem, Kiser could find himself pigeonholed into a career special teamer.

Bryce Hager, 27 years old

The former Baylor Bear is going into his fifth-year with the Rams after signing a one-year deal. To this point, he’s mainly been a special teams contributor with one logged career spot-start.

Hager has excellent athleticism for the position. He’s an adequate form tackler, and due to the athleticism, he can be used in coverage or as a blitzer. Buried on the depth chart due to the surplus of talent at the position, Hager has played behind players such as Littleton, Ogletree, Barron, and Wilson over the years.

This year is a little different, however. Kiser is going to have the early lead on the second linebacker spot next to Littleton, but Hager could potentially make a run at the starting role or even make it a by-committee. Hager has the experience, athleticism, and familiarity on his side over Kiser.

Regardless if Hager finds time on the defensive side of the ball or not, he’s going to be a top contributor on special teams for coach John “Bones” Fassell. This is from Hager’s rookie year, but it gives you an idea of how well he can move around the field and fight to gain leverage and win against blockers.

Dakota Allen, 23 years old 

The Rams drafted “Last Chance U” star Dakota Allen in the seventh round, and it wouldn’t be shocking if Allen is a starter soon. Allen originally started at Texas Tech, but due to off-field issues and breaking team rules, former Red Raiders coach, Kliff Kingsbury, dismissed him from the team.

Allen went on to learn from his mistakes after he headed to East Mississippi Community College, which of course, was featured on the popular TV Show “Last Chance U.”

He finished with 175 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, two and a half sacks, eight pass breakups and two interceptions at East Mississippi. He would end up becoming a team captain which would lead him back to the path of the Texas Tech and eventually the NFL. Allen returned to the Red Raiders where he became a team captain there as well, and he also would go on to put some great film together to get NFL teams excited.

Moving more towards the play-side of Allen, let’s take a look at what he brings to the table. Allen racked up 249 tackles, seven pass breakups, four interceptions, 17.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks while at Texas Tech. His ability to fill gaps when needed, cover a wide area of the field, fight off of blocks and attack the backfield is what had many excited – so much so, Downtown Rams’ own Alexis Kraft believed Allen was easily a second-round talent that the Rams stole at the end of the draft.

“I love this pick. I am blown away it happened in the 7th round because I had Dakota Allen as a second round talent.” – Alexis Kraft

It would not be shocking if Allen is a starter very soon. He’s not a perfect prospect, but he’s someone that has fought back from hitting rock bottom, has led his team as a captain for both his community college and at Texas Tech, he fills assignments well, and he has NFL-level athleticism.

Allen might have to spend some time on special teams initially, but no matter what, he has the tools to end up in a starting rotation in the future.

Travin Howard, 23 years old

Travin Howard is very athletic and almost a spitting image of former Rams linebacker, Mark Baron. Howard did not make the roster last year, but he sat on injured reserve and thus reverted to the Rams 90-man offseason roster following the season’s conclusion.

The former seventh-round pick is a linebacker/safety-tweener that is listed as a linebacker on the official team site. Howard is essentially a rookie coming into 2019, having missed all of 2018, however, he will have still had a year in the system. He’s probably the perfect sub-package/special teams player, but that athleticism and versatility are intriguing enough to question whether or not he will ever enter a starting lineup.

His ability to play all over the field with his range, drop in coverage, and of course, his blitzing off the edge or through the trenches is something that adds more value to the former seventh-round pick’s game. Howard has a good chance of making the final-53 man roster this year but also a realistic shot at seeing the defense in sub-packages.

Natrez Patrick, 21 years old 

Next, in this linebacker room, we have Natrez Patrick, a 21-year old linebacker that has another incredible story to go along with Allen. Patrick is a redemption story, but unfortunately, his decision led to him having to leave his college program.

Patrick wasn’t kicked off the team., ent to a rehabilitation center.

After multiple marijuana arrests and a scared straight maximum security prison visit, Patrick had to find himself. His coaches and his family teamed up to help him, and sure enough, it worked. Patrick played every single game in 2018, and now he’s an undrafted free agent who signed on to the Los Angeles Rams roster.

It shouldn’t come as a shock though as the Rams displayed plenty of interest during the process, according to Patrick in an interview with Draft Wire’s Justin Melo.

Patrick brings the prototypical, size, speed, and overall athleticism that the linebacker position demands. He’s not your typical camp linebacker either. There is an excellent chance Patrick could make this roster.

He is someone that can move fluidly all over the field, he’s versatile which is displayed in his ability to rush the passer as well as play in the off-ball linebacker role, and he’s a coachable kid coming to a team that has a player’s coach in legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

The 6’3, 242-pound linebacker finished his career with 160 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss and two sacks. He’s mainly going to be used as an off-ball linebacker as previously mentioned, but he can rush the passer if needed.

In a reasonably inexperienced linebacker room with just 22 combined career starts between everyone, this is a golden opportunity for the younger, more athletic, and hard-working Patrick to make the team and potentially become a starter down the line.

Troy Reeder, 24 years old

*Listen to the Troy Reeder Interview on the Downtown Rams Podcast*

The former Penn State Nittany Lion ended up transferring to Delaware to follow his family legacy and play with his brother Colby. He has family bloodlines that run into the NFL. His father Dan Reeder played for the Los Angeles Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers back in the 1980s.

Reeder is a very sound tackling linebacker that can make plays in coverage. He fell into the Rams lap as an undrafted free agent linebacker due to the lack of exposure and overall athleticism.

At 6’3 and 245 pounds, Reeder has excellent size for the position and will be able to compete for a role on the team. You will likely hear all of the cliche superlatives with Reeder, “hard-nosed,” “grinder,” “gamer,” “lunch-pail guy,” “blue collar” but to be fair, he puts his helmet on and does his job to the best of his ability.

He’s a natural leader, he has natural instincts, he naturally fights off blocks, and he has top-notch experience and production playing special teams – which could help him make the roster.

Ketner Kupp, 22 years old

Last but not least in the inside linebacker room we have Ketner Kupp, who is related to Rams star wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Kupp is no pushover feel good story though. He amassed 152 career tackles and 2.5 sacks while leading as a co-captain for the Eastern Washington Eagles. It’s worth mentioning he’s the fifth EWU Eagle on the Rams joining Cooper Kupp, Samson Ebukam, Nsimba Webster & Aaron Neary.

Ketner’s not the fastest or tallest linebacker – which is why he was available – but he did have another workout scheduled with the San Francisco 49ers before the Rams swooped him and reunited him with his brother Cooper. DraftScout.com ranked Kupp as the No. 59 overall inside linebacker in the draft.

It will be tough for Ketner to make this roster with the lack of production from college. He’s already fighting from the bottom of the depth chart, but that’s precisely why the preseason is there. Ketner Kupp finished his pro day with numbers of 18 bench reps and a 4.78 forty-yard dash.

The overall issue for Ketner is the lack of athleticism as he only jumped a 29 1/2 vertical and a 9’03” broad jump. He doesn’t have the explosive qualities you look for in an NFL starter, but we will see what he can do on the field.

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