2020 Free Agent Profile: Linebacker Cory Littleton

Photo: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

One of the top breakout linebackers in the NFL over the last couple of years has been Cory Littleton. Since joining the Los Angeles Rams in 2016, he has not missed a single game, earning his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods in 2018. 

His range and explosiveness as a second-level defender in space make him one of the top coverage linebackers in the entire league. With five interceptions, 22 pass deflections and one touchdown to his credit defending the pass, Littleton’s ability to impact the game on third down is second to none.

With his high-level production and proven durability at just 26 years old, it would seem like re-signing Littleton is a no-brainer for the Rams. However, with so much of the team’s cap already assigned to players like Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks, Todd Gurley and almost certainly Jalen Ramsey, there is little hope within the front office of bringing back the Pro Bowl linebacker.

As such, there will plenty of suitors for Littleton this offseason as arguably the top off-ball linebacker on the open market. So let’s break down his free-agent profile.

WHERE HE WINS

Littleton is one of the best pure coverage linebackers in football. It’s not just his speed and range to roam from sideline to sideline that makes him so dangerous; it’s his playmaking instincts. Whether in man or zone coverage, Littleton just has that natural feel for positioning that you can’t teach, and when you combine that with his natural gifts, he becomes a difference-maker.

Another great aspect of Littleton’s game that goes underappreciated is his ability to affect the game on third down as a situational pass rusher. He has excellent lower-body quickness and fluidity. Whether it’s coming off the edge or through the gap as a blitzer, that athleticism pops on tape. With his pass rush value and coverage instincts, you could make a great case that Littleton is one of the best pass defending linebackers in the NFL.

Plus his availability on game day is one of his best traits. Whether on special teams or as the Rams’ starting linebacker the last two seasons, Littleton has played all 64 games of his four-year career — just remarkable durability at a physically-demanding position.

POTENTIAL RED FLAGS

In run defense, it is just so hit or miss with Littleton. At just under 230 pounds, he doesn’t have the frame to physically hold up at the point of attack against blockers. He gets overwhelmed by strength and power, and it shows in his difficulty to shed blocks. Littleton is undoubtedly a linebacker that needs to either play a weakside role or have good defensive linemen that can keep him free.

As a result, scheme fit will be absolutely key. In fact, Littleton ranks outside the top 100 for run defending linebackers over the last two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. If your team is looking for a true inside linebacker, you may want to steer clear. Littleton’s skill set will not fare well in that kind of role, but with how much the league is playing nickel now, it’s becoming more comfortable with players of his profile at the position. Eight to 10 years ago, the NFL was full of early-down thumpers. Now, those players are mostly extinct. Regardless, Littleton could disappoint his future team with his poor output against the run.

MARKET VALUE

Littleton’s market value this offseason is relatively high because of that base nickel trend. His ability to impact the passing game in both coverage and as a situational rusher separates him from most other players at his position. To get an idea of the contract he could command, let’s look at recent deals given to top linebackers.

  • Myles Jack: Four years, $57 million; $14.25 million APY
  • Deion Jones: Four years, $57 million; $14.25 million APY
  • Jaylon Smith: Five years, $63.75 million; $12.75 million APY

Looking at those numbers, I think it’s reasonable to believe that Littleton’s APY is going to be close to $15 million. It will be tricky for the Rams to keep Littleton in a Los Angeles uniform, but it is possible. At the same time, it is very likely, in my opinion, that several suitors will simply outbid the Rams for him.

Potential Landing Spots

Green Bay Packers

The Green Bay Packers don’t have the cap space that other suitors will carry this offseason, but with Blake Martinez also likely to test the free-agent waters, Littleton could be the team’s primary target for a big signing. He fits this defense perfectly in an off-ball role as Green Bay desperately needed more coverage impact from their second-level defenders in 2019.

New York Giants

Only a handful of teams have more cap space than the New York Giants this offseason, and one position they could spend a lot of it on is at off-ball linebacker. It is a big position of need and we know Dave Gettleman loves drafting second-level defenders. Littleton could be Gettleman’s Shaq Thompson-plus in New York.

Denver Broncos

With about $60 million in cap space, the Denver Broncos could be big spenders this free-agent cycle. Littleton fits one of the team’s biggest needs and putting a player with his speed at the second level behind one of the pass rush duos in the NFL — Von Miller and Bradley Chubb — makes too much sense.