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Cory Littleton or Dante Fowler?

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Chicago Bears v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

In one of his last moves as the head coach of the Rams, Jeff Fisher signed inside linebacker Cory Littleton as an undrafted free agent out of Washington. To this day, Littleton’s entire Wikipedia page entry on his college career is this: “Littleton attended the University of Washington.”

He slipped through all 253 selections made in 2016 and was signed by the new team in Los Angeles and the Cory Littleton hype train had no idea it even existed. Like Snowpiercer, it went round and round and nobody knew when it would crash into a mountain of Pro Bowls. (Spoiler alerts for Snowpiercer and Littleton’s career.) Here at Turf Show Times, the 2016 UDFA list gave only quick mention of Littleton because UDFAs rarely deserve more.

The reality is that many UDFAs pan out but it’s rarely the “hyped” ones and it’s often ones that you glance over. Which is sort of a microcosm of prospect evaluation itself as first Littleton was ignored in the draft and then Littleton was ignored in the undraft.

But Fisher got at least one thing right before he was fired mid-2016, which is that he kept Littleton on as a backup outside linebacker and even that came as a surprise, as he wasn’t in some final 53-man projections. He made it and he stayed on the whole season as a reserve, making one start, but that didn’t stop him from winning the team’s rookie of the year award.

Reminder: The LA Rams drafted Jared Goff in 2016. The Rams had the number one pick in the draft and their rookie of the year was a blase undrafted free agent linebacker who was buried on the depth chart. That’s how much of an impact Littleton had on this roster and this team as a rookie. Obviously Goff had a really bad rookie campaign and the Rams didn’t have any other picks between 1 and 110 that season but any time a UDFA leaves that kind of impression on a team, it means that he’s likely someone you enjoy fighting next to and not against.

Playing on a 2017 Wade Phillips defense that also included Mark Barron, Alec Ogletree, Connor Barwin, and Robert Quinn, not to mention Samson Ebukam and Matt Longacre, Littleton fought his way to four starts and totaled 36 tackles, one sack, and one interception. Perhaps the deepest linebacking unit in the league that year, Littleton eventually emerged as the most important to McVay’s Rams.

With space cleared out by trading Ogletree and Quinn and parting with Barwin, Littleton became a full time starter at linebacker in 2018. He recorded 125 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions, nine tackles for a loss, and made the Pro Bowl. Clearly Fisher had reeled in a prize winner and McVay/Phillips had turned him into Best in Show. (Mixed animal metaphors or the Island of Dr Moreau?)

The number of players who had 120+ tackles, 4+ sacks, 3+ interceptions in 2018: One.

Darius Leonard was the only player to do that in 2019. Only three players have done that since 2014: Littleton, Leonard, and Landon Collins.

We saw basically more of the same from Littleton in 2019 and now he’s set to be a free agent, having turned himself from not good enough to be in the top-253 of the draft in 2016 (and realistically maybe not even in the top-400 overall) to being the top inside linebacker on the market, if not one of the top three or four in the league overall.

Bobby Wagner makes the most per year at inside linebacker at $18 million per season on a contract extension he signed last year. That topped the $17 million AAV by CJ Mosley signed in free agency. Third place is Myles Jack and Deion Jones at $14.25 million. Where Littleton lands is only a guess at this point but if the Jets were willing to go $17 on Mosley, who is to say that another team with more cap space than what they can spend isn’t going to go $17.5 or more on Littleton?

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Dante Fowler was on the completely opposite end of the draft spectrum as Littleton and it came one year earlier. Coming out of Florida in 2015, Fowler was described as a pass rusher who had only just begun to come into his own and that he could “dominate” a game if he wanted to. His NFL.com pro comparison was Khalil Mack.

SOURCES TELL US “He’s had to play at different weights and different spots on the field, and I think he’s finally understanding how to use his athleticism to dominate a game. He will be way better in the pros than what he is now.” — AFC East college director of scouting

NFL COMPARISON Khalil Mack

BOTTOM LINE Strong-side 3-4 outside linebacker with the physical traits and above-average potential to set the edge or spill runs wide to an early demise. Fowler is a competitive pass rusher getting by on athleticism and inside moves right now, but has a Pro Bowl ceiling with double-digit sack potential if he takes coaching and addresses his rush technique.

SBNation’s Stephen White described him as “boom or bust” and it was clear from almost the very onset of his professional career that he was ... bust.

After the Bucs selected Jameis Winston and the Titans picked Marcus Mariota, the Jaguars had their pick of any player in the draft and that likely meant that the pressure was on to come away with the best player in the draft since Winston and Mariota were probably not it. They were just good QB prospects in most eyes. There was Fowler. Amari Cooper. Brandon Scherff. Leonard Williams. Todd Gurley.

Though he had plenty of doubters, most understood why Jacksonville chose Fowler and he could immediately replace a 34-year-old Chris Clemons. Except that on his first day of minicamp, Fowler tore his ACL. The rookie season would have to wait a year.

Switching defensive coordinators from Bob Babich to Todd Wash in 2016, Fowler wasn’t coming into the best situation. The team also drafted Yannick Ngakoue that year and started Tyson Alualu, putting Fowler in a developmental backup role where he got into 53% of the snaps. Fowler finished the season with four sacks, 11 QB hits, and six tackles for a loss with five batted passes which ... isn’t that bad for a 22-year-old, all things considered.

Among those things to consider was that Gus Bradley was fired with a 2-12 record in his pocket and replaced by interim Doug Marrone.

Marrone retained the job and kept Wash on as defensive coordinator, but the team also made the best signing of 2017 by bringing in defensive end Calais Campbell from Arizona. The Jaguars went 10-6 with a top-ranked defense that included Campbell and Ngakoue as Pro Bowl defensive ends with 26.5 combined sacks, again leaving Fowler in a backup role. In that role, Fowler put up eight sacks, 10 QB hits, and seven tackles for a loss despite the fact that his playing time decreased from 53% to 45% and from 570 snaps to 464 snaps. He also had two sacks, three QB hits, and five TFL in the playoffs.

In 106 fewer snaps, Fowler doubled his sack total and maintained his totals for QB hits and TFLs. He was 23 years old which meant that even if he was a rookie, he wouldn’t stand out for his age, but this was year three for Fowler. 23-year-old rookies in 2017 included Mitch Trubisky, Evan Engram, Reuben Foster, and Ryan Ramczyk, while first rounder Garrett Bolles was 25.

When he was 21, Fowler was the top non-QB in the draft. At 23, he had put up eight sacks in fewer than half of the defensive snaps. You’d think this is when his value was at its highest, but the team had already moved on to Campbell and Ngakoue and they declined Fowler’s fifth-year option. He was then suspended for Week 1 by the league for a 2017 arrest in which he punched a man and stepped on his glasses.

Not that the suspension really mattered to Jacksonville as he was virtually excluded from Marrone and Wash’s plans. Fowler played in only 16% of the snaps in the first seven games and was traded to the LA Rams in exchange for their third round compensatory selection and a 2020 fifth rounder that of course has yet to be used.

In eight games with the Rams, Fowler played in 412 snaps, essentially getting his first opportunity to be a full time player. Without a chance to get offseason reps in the defense, with these teammates, and only having just met these coaches, Fowler had two sacks, five QB hits and four TFL in that time. In three playoff starts, Fowler had eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, three QB hits, and four TFL.

He was also contributing on special teams for the first time in his career, a trend that continued in 2019.

Now 25, the same age as a rookie Bolles, Fowler became a full-time NFL starter. He played in all 16 games and was in on 80% of the defensive snaps, plus 11% of the snaps on special teams. Fowler had 11.5 sacks, 16 QB hits, six batted passes, and 16 TFL. The Rams may have gone from the Super Bowl to out of the playoffs, but the defense went from 18th in DVOA and 27th against the run to ninth in DVOA and eighth against the run.

Aaron Donald finished second in total pressures, as he is wont to do, but Fowler was tied for 14th in pressures and was seventh in QB hurries. He became a vital part of Phillips’ front seven and their blitz packages. All six players ahead of him in QB hurries — Donald, Mack, Cam Jordan, Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, T.J. Watt — went to the Pro Bowl. He had as many sacks as Joey Bosa, and more sacks than Nick Bosa and Mack.

It’s rare to see a player who had as much draft hype as Fowler fall this far under the radar but he’s the same age as T.J. Watt and only one year older than Joey Bosa. How big is the difference really between Fowler and Danielle Hunter, who is also 25?

In 2018, Hunter signed a five-year, $72 million contract extension and some even criticized him for accepting less than what he would have gotten if he had just waited. At 26 last year, Frank Clark signed a five year, $104 million contract with the Chiefs. Demarcus Lawrence signed for just one million more than that. Trey Flowers got $90 million.

The advantages that those edge players had going into their free agency was consistency but there was little consistent about Fowler’s path to 25: He tore his ACL as a rookie, when he returned the defensive coordinator was different and Jacksonville stumbled into an explosive third rounder at the same position in Ngakoue, coaches changed again, then signed a premium free agent in Campbell, then was traded to a whole new set of coaches and teammates, and eventually settled into being the guy. And honestly throughout most of that turmoil, Fowler remained productive.

I have little doubt that a Fowler is a more productive pass rusher than a Flowers.

If an agent can’t turn that into a five-year deal over $100 million, I would wonder if Fowler made a mistake in hiring his agent. You could argue that he’s more of a Za’Darius Smith than he is a Demarcus Lawrence (Smith signed for $16.5 million AAV) but I could see the bidding push over $20 million AAV.

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Overall, the decision between Littleton and Fowler is not an easy one and given the Rams current cap constraints, there’s going to be the possibility that the defense loses both. At $18.5 million in current space, Los Angeles has maneuvering to do before they could consider a franchise tag that allocates at least $16 million to the player they are tagging.

These are two players who have seen most of their career-thriving come as teammates who were rarely too far from one another. It seems almost certain that they’ll be separated within the next month and perhaps only one can stay with the Rams.

Which player should that be, if either?

Poll

Well, you know the question

This poll is closed

  • 64%
    Cory Littleton
    (361 votes)
  • 35%
    Dante Fowler
    (198 votes)
559 votes total Vote Now