The Los Angeles Rams entered last season with a bunch of unknown commodities at linebacker. EDGE Samson Ebukam was penciled in on the outside, with guys like EDGE Matt Longacre and EDGE Justin Lawler competing on the other side. In the middle, previously undrafted LB Cory Littleton was the heir apparent at the Mike backer position which opened up when the Rams traded Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants during the during the offseason.
There was plenty of talk about how linebackers were not considered premium positions in Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips’ defense, and that fans shouldn’t freak out about starting a fourth-round selection and two UDFAs next to ILB Mark Barron.
As it turned out, Ebukam did not provide a consistent pass rush outside. Longacre had a single sack through eight games, and the Rams ultimately ended up having to trade for EDGE Dante Fowler, Jr., just in time for the stretch run of the season. Inside, things worked out better though Littleton racked up 125 tackles, three interceptions, and was second only to DL Aaron Donald on the team in tackles for a loss. Wade Phillips even went so far as to partake in some midseason gushing:
I don’t know that any linebacker is playing as well as he is in both areas. He’s had a lot of pass breakups and interceptions, things like that that. You just don’t see a normal linebacker — I think he’s way ahead of everybody in the league as far as pass coverage.
Add to that that Littleton remained one of the best special teamers in the NFL and was invited to the Pro Bowl in that capacity.
Not all was perfect though, Littleton was the Mike backer on a team that was dead last in yards allowed per rush attempt, so it was fair to wonder if the Rams would have been better off with a more stout run stopper, as opposed to the rangier Littleton inside. The Rams will ride with Littleton as a starter again this season, with hopes that their run defense will improve by starting second-year linebacker Micah Kiser at the Mo position, and getting help from a true nose tackle up front in rookie Greg Gaines.
Littleton seems pretty close to a lock as a starter inside, although based on skill sets, it does seem possible that Phillips would consider a position swap with Kiser. Beyond that, unless the run defense remains a major liability, Littleton should be safe. Should the defense continue to struggle against the rush, a shake up is possible where Clay Matthews moves inside, paving the way for guys like Ebukam or Ogbonnia Okoronkwo to see more playing time outside. This seems unlikely though.
Depth inside, provided by Bryce Hager (roster preview), Natrez Patrick (roster preview), Troy Reeder (roster preview) and possibly Travin Howard (roster preview) doesn’t seem likely to ascend beyond Littleton on the depth chart.
Littleton should lead the team in tackles again. He will make more than a few big, game-changing plays, on defense as well as in special teams. Ultimately though, the Rams’ run defense will have to improve this season for the team to truly feel great about Littleton in the middle as a long term option.
Chances of Making The Final Roster (9.82/10)
Cory Littleton will be a Los Angeles Ram this season.