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Cory Littleton struggling in first season away from Rams

Littleton’s transition may have been bad for two defenses, not one

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NFL: Buffalo Bills at Las Vegas Raiders Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The LA Rams helped former undrafted free agent Cory Littleton go from unknown to a local star in relatively short order, but his first time as a regular for any defensive coordinator not named Wade Phillips has been a football-sized disaster. Littleton was outstanding for the last two seasons, averaging 84 solo tackles, 45 assists, four sacks, two interceptions, 11 batted passes and 7.5 tackles per year. He completed 257 tackles and only missed 15 opportunities, a rate of only 5.5%.

Through his first five games as a member of the Las Vegas Raiders, Littleton has 27 tackles (18 solo, nine assists) and 11 missed tackles. A rate of 29%. He has allowed 231 yards after the catch, most of any player in the NFL despite the fact that the Raiders have already had their bye week.

Littleton is allowing over 10 yards after the catch per reception, if those numbers are believed. There aren’t many people around Las Vegas disputing that the film matches the stats.

A desperate need at linebacker prompted head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock to give Littleton a three-year, $35 million contract with $22 million guaranteed. At inside linebacker it tends to feel automatic that results will transfer to any defense but that has not been the case with Littleton, who has yet to record a sack and has produced only one pressure (a hurry) after playing in 328 snaps and blitzing 19 times.

Littleton has no interceptions, no forced fumbles, no QB hits, no passes defensed and two tackles for a loss. He had five games last season where he allowed at least 10 yards per completion and this season he has been credited with allowing that number in all five contests already. There is something to be said for not overrating “advanced stats” like these where assignments and blame is not easily understood by the evaluators.

But who is coming to the defense of Littleton right now?

Three weeks ago, Littleton said he “hasn’t been that great” so far with the Raiders. A Bleacher Report writer called him the most disappointing player on the roster. PFF called him an elite coverage linebacker in the offseason and noted that they only tracked him with one missed tackle in 2019, but today he is one of their worst graded players in the league.

His coverage grade has slipped tremendously and PFF notes he’s playing on the outside more often than he did with LA. They also think the lack of an Aaron Donald is contributing to his downfall.

One person who believes in him still would be Phillips, who told the Las Vegas Review-Journal of Littleton:

“Cory is very athletic and was an outstanding run-and-hit player,” said Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator for three of the four seasons Littleton was with the Rams. “He was a very good coverage linebacker and an especially good rusher when matched up on a back. Has excellent character. One of my favorite players to have ever coached.”

Littleton replacement Micah Kiser could match his predecessor’s tackle marks, something he’s cleaned up since Week 1, but it’s worth noting that he also has zero sacks, zero interceptions, zero tackles for a loss and only one QB hit. He has a way to go to match Littleton’s success from 2018-2019.

There’s no reason to root against Littleton and it could be that this is simply a slow start to a long and fruitful career in Silver and Black. It is also not unusual to see that sometimes a player and team were best fit for each other in the long run.