LOS ANGELES -- A Los Angeles Rams' offense that was among the NFL's best last season might be even better now, with Brandin Cooks joining the receiver group and Jared Goff potentially taking another step forward as a third-year quarterback. The defensive line, where Ndamukong Suh joins Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, looks flat-out scary. And the same can be said for the secondary, now that Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters have been added to a group that includes Lamarcus Joyner, John Johnson and Nickell Robey-Coleman.
The linebackers ... well, that's a different story.
The Rams upgraded elsewhere on their roster at the expense of this group. The salary-cap space now allocated for Cooks and Talib used to belong to outside linebacker Robert Quinn (traded to the Miami Dolphins) and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree (traded to the New York Giants). Two long-time fixtures on the Rams' defense are gone, as is Connor Barwin, an accomplished veteran who started on the left side last year and now remains unsigned as a free agent.
Heading into 2018, the Rams have what looks like three open spots at linebacker -- spots they will fill internally, either with former backups or recent mid- to late-round draft picks. The only returning starter in this group is inside linebacker Mark Barron, a potential cap casualty when the offseason began.
Below, we sorted through the candidates to play alongside him.
The favorites: Samson Ebukam and Matt Longacre played well while backing up Barwin and Quinn, respectively, last year. Cory Littleton, mostly an inside linebacker, was a star on special teams, blocking two punts. They all seem to have the inside track on starting roles heading into 2018, but will nonetheless have to earn their keep. Ebukam is an explosive athlete who profiled as a high-upside edge rusher coming out of Eastern Washington, but one who also needed some refinement. The Rams hope Year 2 is a big one for him. Undrafted out of Northwest Missouri State, Longacre's snap count went from 149 to 354 from 2016 to 2017, while switching from defensive end to mostly outside linebacker. He finished with 5.5 sacks in 230 snaps on the right side. Littleton, undrafted out of Washington, started in place of Barron in Week 16 against the Tennessee Titans and recorded a sack and an interception in the game that clinched a division title.
The incumbents: For outside linebacker, the Rams also have Ejuan Price (a seventh-round pick last year), Garrett Sickels (undrafted in 2017) and Carlos Thompson (undrafted in 2015). Those three have combined for 87 defensive snaps in the NFL. Wade Phillips likes to rotate his outside linebackers, so that total might increase significantly this coming season. That isn't necessarily the case at inside linebacker; at least not with Barron and Ogletree, who typically played every snap when healthy. Bryce Hager, a seventh-round pick in 2015, was Ogletree's backup as the defensive signal-caller last year. Ramik Wilson, a fourth-round pick in 2015, was signed over the offseason after the Kansas City Chiefs declined to tender him a contract as a restricted free agent. Wilson started 17 games from 2015 to 2017, so he has far more experience than anybody else in this group.
The rookies: The Rams added four players who could join the mix during a 2018 draft that didn't include a single pick in the first two rounds. Two names to pay close attention to here are Micah Kiser out of Virginia and Obo Okoronkwo out of Oklahoma, both of whom were fifth-round selections. Okoronkwo was deemed the Rams' best pick by ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. He might not have the physical attributes of an elite edge rusher, but he is considered a sound all-around player with a good motor. Kiser, meanwhile, is coming off a solid collegiate career that saw him compile 33.5 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, 12 passes defended and eight forced fumbles in 37 games from 2015 to 2017. He could be a good asset against the run, a major issue for the Rams up the middle last season. The Rams also selected outside linebacker Trevon Young (sixth round) and inside linebacker Travin Howard (seventh).