Christian Gardner sifts through the aggressive LA Rams’ offseason to take a look at a potential hidden gem.
Inside linebacker Cory Littleton is the player the LA Rams are looking at to step up after the team made a flurry of moves in the offseason.
LA’s busy offseason is highlighted by the addition of a trio of talented playmakers into defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defensive scheme. The team added cornerback Aqib Talib, who won a Super Bowl with Phillips in Denver, former Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who will play next to All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The three incoming defensive stars seem to have moved focus away from Ogletree’s replacement.
The Rams sent stud IDP linebacker Alec Ogletree and a seventh-round pick in the draft to the New York Giants in March for fourth- and sixth-round round picks in the 2018 draft. Ogletree finished a down year by his standards with with 63 solo tackles, two sacks, a pick and one forced fumble. Also worth mentioning is Pro Football Focus grading Ogletree as one of the worst linebackers in the NFL last season. The inside linebacker came into 2017 after a monstrous 98-tackles in the 2016 regular season.
So in steps ‘surprise offseason standout’ Littleton, who the Rams signed into the organization in 2016 as an undrafted free agent out of Washington, as the favorite for the ‘Mike’ role vacated by Ogletree. The former Husky, 24, is 6’3, 225 pounds and quoted saying he will assume the “quarterback of the defense” role next to Mark Barron.
Phillips runs an aggressive defense relying on the secondary to make plays. The coordinator is quoted preferring the strong personalities. And the Talib, Peters and Suh additions bring tough, if not volatile, personalities to an already powerful NFC West defense.
Rams insider Myles Simmons said Littleton appears to be developing well. ‘He crashed down hard inside to hit an inside blocking tight end during 11-on-11 drills, disrupting a run. And a few plays later, he set the edge well on the defense’s right, forcing an end around to cut back inside where another defensive player was waiting for a thud.’
Evidenced by the success of the 2015 Denver Broncos Super Bowl champion defense, Phillips does not require players with a high draft pedigree to man the middle. Danny Trevathan, a sixth-round pick in 2012, played MLB in the Denver Broncos’ aggressively fierce 3-4 championship defense in 2015 under Phillips. Trevathan recorded 73 solo tackles that season, according to Pro Football Reference. Linebacker Brandon Marshall, a 2012 fifth-round pick, played next to Trevathan in 2015. Marshall recorded 76 solo tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles during the Broncos regular season that year, according to Pro Football Reference.
Let’s take a look at the numbers produced by middle linebacker Brian Cushing during Phillips’ defensive coordinator tenure with the Houston Texans defense from 2011-2013.
Cushing, a 2009 first-round pick, recorded 81 solo tackles and four sacks starting 16 games in 2011. In an injury-shortened 2012 Cushing recorded 22 solo tackles in five games and 36 solo tackles in seven games during another injury-shortened 2013.
Littleton, assuming the linebacker stays healthy, holds a positive floor entering 2018, and stopping the run will be key to Littleton’s success. And from past results a player does not need to be selected high in the draft to find IDP success playing in Phillips’ 3-4 defense.
Sixty-five solo tackles seems lowly predictable as a baseline for Littleton, and I would expect the former undrafted free agent to go past 70 solo tackles should he stay healthy. Because in two 2017 games started, Littleton recorded 25 solo tackles, one forced fumble and a sack.
Depth Chart Threats to Littleton
LA also signed inside linebacker Ramik Wilson during the offseason. Wilson practiced in the ‘Moe’ role, held by the starter Mark Barron, during offseason practices and is a depth signing. However should Littleton struggle, Wilson holds starter potential and could get a look from the Rams as Ogletree’s replacement.
The Rams also selected three linebackers during the draft. Micah Kiser, selected in the fifth round out of Virginia, carries the best chance of the three rookies linebackers to push Littleton. However reports from camp and quotes from coaches suggest Littleton is in position to win the job as a starter into the regular season.