THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bryce Hager is still competing to start at inside linebacker, just as he was before Micah Kiser sustained a pectoral injury in the Rams' second preseason game on Saturday.
Kiser had surgery Tuesday to repair the injury he sustained in the 14-10 loss against the Dallas Cowboys in Honolulu. Coach Sean McVay did not know if Kiser would be able to play this season, acknowledging the second-year linebacker is "going to be out for a while.
"I think a lot of that is predicated on exactly how he's recovering from all that, but it is a significant injury," McVay said. "And as far as that timetable, it's going to be a while to say a specific timeline."
That uncertainty leaves Hager as the presumed starter for the Rams, a role he had been hoping to earn after signing a one-year contract in May to remain with the team. Los Angeles released incumbent Mark Barron in March, putting Hager and Kiser in position to compete for the vacant position.
While Kiser was regarded as the projected starter, Hager had been splitting reps with the 2018 fifth-round draft pick throughout the offseason. And Hager had the edge in both experience because of his extensive work on special teams and familiarity with the defense.
The biggest question mark regarding Hager, a seventh-round selection in the 2015 draft, was a lack of playing time on defense. A reliable special teams contributor appearing in all 64 regular-season games during his first four seasons, Hager has made one start in his career. It came in the final week of the 2017 season when the Rams rested their starters after clinching the NFC West, with Hager recording four tackles, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
Despite a dearth of starts, Hager is ready to make the most of his opportunity. Hager's confidence comes from his mental preparations that have never changed regardless of where he was on the depth chart.
"In this league, as a backup, you have to treat yourself as a starter cause you know anything can happen to a certain player on a certain play and then you're thrown in there," Hager said. "So as long as you come in and prepare like a starter there shouldn't be any adjustments."
Starting inside linebacker Cory Littleton expects no drop-off with Hager playing alongside him, pointing to the Baylor product's understanding of the finer points of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' system.
"He's smart so he makes sure he's on top of all his position adjustments, alignments, his checks and stuff like that," Littleton said. "Bryce is a baller. I believe in him 100 percent, no different than I believe in myself, so we should be great."
McVay would seem to agree with Littleton's assessment by downplaying the possibility of adding a veteran linebacker, even with roster cuts down to 53 players looming.
McVay also ruled out a position switch for rookie Natrez Patrick. Patrick played inside linebacker at Georgia but has been working outside for the Rams, recording three tackles with a sack against the Cowboys.
"I think we've all seen when Bryce has gotten his opportunities he's shown that he is deserving of being out on the field and been a really productive player for us, which is why we wanted to re-sign him in free agency," McVay said. "That's not going to affect Natrez Patrick at all."
Though Hager now seems set for a starting role, he doesn't plan to give up his myriad roles on special teams just yet, in part because of his appreciation for special teams coordinator John Fassel.
Hager's continued commitment to playing special teams reflects how nothing has changed as far as he is concerned, even with Kiser's injury.
"You want to start," Hager said. "But I knew coming here there were things on special teams for me. My special teams role, and then whatever I could do after that, that's a bonus."