Surprising to no one, one of the main questions this off-season is the upcoming status of Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cory Littleton. Much-loved by Rams fans, the fear is that this starting playmaker might be off to greener pastures. After all, he’s garnering interests the likes of which he’s never seen heading into his fifth season.
Some seem to think he’s worth every penny set to blow up his wallet. Others think he’s overrated or simply a byproduct of the chaos caused by who he plays behind.
Cory Littleton – Should He Stay or Go?
Among a growing number of articles and social media commentary mentioning the unassuming Cory Littleton, I came across a particularly interesting proposal. In a nutshell, a writer questions whether or not Littleton’s been that good or was playing behind the best, most disruptive interior defensive lineman ever making him appear that way. That’s a question? Well, rephrased, it might be the toughest question the Rams have to answer. Could any moderately talented linebacker come in behind Aaron Donald and have the same impact Littleton’s had?
Perhaps for some, this is something to ponder but Rams fans know his overall game stands out. It has since his special teams days, the first two of his four years as a pro. Some players simply have a knack for being in the right place at the right time more than what’s average. Littleton is one of those players. Of course, this is mostly due to great instincts, heart, and effort because luck comes and goes for everyone.
The man has blocked kicks, recorded a safety, forced fumbles and recovered even more fumbles. He’s picked off passes—because his coverage game excels—and he’s taken the ball to the house. And then there’s that recently-tweeted revelation by PFF announcing that Littleton finished the 2019 season on top, “1st among ALL defenders in Tackling Grades.”
Every NFL team needs great tackling now more than ever. Face it, via glam and new rules, players don’t always tackle as they should. The level of interest Littleton’s play has inspired this offseason is a clear indication others have taken notice. If you have a sure tackler, there is opposition somewhere writing his name down. And should this player come with exceptional playmaking ability he is to be kept and driven ‘til the wheels fall off.
Position Stability: Third Time’s A Charm
The Rams have parted ways with a fairly decent linebacker in each of the last two off-seasons. Following the 2017 season, they traded away Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants for two draft picks. The same age then as Littleton is now (26) but with tons more experience, many wondered if there would be much of a drop-off in quality. There was not. One can argue, especially after two seasons have now passed, it’s been an upgrade.
When Mark Barron became a Ram he transitioned into what is now commonly known as the hybrid. These less stiff and Hulky linebackers are agile and can also drop into coverage and provide secondary support in a changing game. Littleton appears to be the best the Rams have had in this role.
Making the Case Stick
For the sake of making a case towards a resigning, here’s a gander at how Cory has stacked up against both former Rams linebackers, Ogletree and Barron.
Generated 2/10/2020.Of course, the above is not intended to be an exact science. The circumstances vary and defensive linemen have it a lot tougher in the trenches. They cannot be expected to maintain the amount of defensive snaps that linebackers sustain. Even still, we’re talking Aaron Donald and it’s safe to assume he was on the field the majority of the time these linebackers saw significant action. But wait. There’s more.
This comparison, as casual as it’s meant to be taken, might just be effective enough to reveal something worth noticing. A main reason to keep any player around. That is, obvious improvement from one year to the next.
Littleton might very well be as good or better than his predecessors. The numbers certainly hint in that direction, especially keeping in mind that Ogletree and Barron had thousands more snaps (aka, years of experience) before Littleton’s starter status began—before their games in the comparison kicked in.
Is Cory Littleton Worth What the Market Commands?
Is he the right fit for the new defensive coordinator’s scheme? He’s too small to ever be effective enough against the run. If you’re a Rams fan, you’ve likely heard it all by now.
Truth is, who doesn’t want a top-rated tackler? A linebacker that is capable of being on the field when he is the only linebacker on the field holding his own with the secondary. Littleton covers those problematic tight ends better than most and keeps pass plays in front of him. He can play in any scheme but a defensive coordinator with vision that does in-game adjustments well will appreciate him more.
The Rams, despite the hype surrounding their current situation with Todd Gurley and an offensive line that lacks depth and stability, still figure to score points better than most. Meaning, opposing teams will often face critical passing situations. In 2019, the Rams run defense improved and with core players John Johnson III, an improving Taylor Rapp and field-savvy Cory Littleton returning, the Rams look to build on what was developing into a very solid unit defensively.
Remaining solid, however, should not be the goal in 2020. The goal should be to make 2020 in sparkling new SoFi Stadium a memorable one. Special players do this along the way. Cory Littleton is such a player so pay him and turn him loose.
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