On a star-studded Rams defense, Cory Littleton quietly finds a role

Cory Littleton proved to be a playmaker last season, intercepting a pass and getting a sack against the Titans. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- If Los Angeles Rams linebackers coach Joe Barry had his way, he would have started coaching Cory Littleton more than two years ago.

Barry, a former assistant with the Washington Redskins, implored the Redskins to select Littleton in the 2016 draft.

"When we were in Washington we loved him," Barry said. "I was on the table the entire third day of the draft to draft him."

But with more pressing needs, the Redskins passed on Littleton, who made several positions moves in four seasons at the University of Washington, which reflected in a draft grade that labeled him as an in-between player without a real spot in the NFL.

The other 31 teams passed on Littleton in the draft, too, leaving Littleton, a San Diego native, to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Rams.

"He made the decision," Barry said, "And I was like, 'Dang! What a bummer.'"

Barry may have lost out on Littleton in the draft and free agency, but united with him in Los Angeles a year later when he accepted a position on coach Sean McVay's staff.

Now as the Rams prepare for the 2018 season, Littleton, 24, has gone from an undrafted player to a penciled-in starter at inside linebacker on a defense that includes All-Pros Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters.

"It's been a progression," Littleton said. "Just trying to get better every day."

Littleton's ascension up the depth chart was made possible after a series of offseason roster moves.

In the first year deploying defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, the Rams ranked 19th in total defense, giving up the 12th-fewest points and generating the fifth-most turnovers, as they clinched the NFC West for the first time since 2003.

But they also ranked 28th against the run, allowing an average of 122.4 yards rushing.

In an effort to better field the 3-4 and provide some salary-cap flexibility, the Rams traded outside linebacker Robert Quinn to the Miami Dolphins and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree -- who last season signed a four-year, $42-million extension -- to the New York Giants.

Ogletree's departure cleared a path for Littleton to win the starting job.

"I'm just competing to try to secure it," Littleton said. "I have a lot of tough competition and I'm just going to do my best to try to keep it."

The choice to part ways with Ogletree, a cornerstone of the locker room and the team's leading tackler the last two seasons, was made somewhat easier by the promise Littleton showed last season.

"When he played last year, he's the type of guy where you're creating certain packages just to get him on the field when you've got two really good players inside like Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron," McVay said. "Cory's made plays over the course of his career when he's gotten opportunities."

Last season, Littleton recorded 36 tackles, forced two fumbles, and in a Week 16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, proved himself as a playmaker.

Starting in place of Barron, who was sidelined because of an injury, Littleton intercepted the first pass of his career, shocking quarterback Marcus Mariota on his opening drive. The turnover resulted in a touchdown. Later, Littleton recorded his first career sack when he took down Mariota in the red zone. The Rams went on to clinch the NFC West with a 27-23 victory.

"I came in and just tried to perform to the best of my ability," Littleton said.

At that point in the season, Littleton, also a standout on special teams, had already made an impression on the first-year coaching staff. But his performance against the Titans helped solidify their thought that he could become a full-time starter.

"Cory has unbelievable awareness and instincts," Barry said. "The things that Cory has been able to work on, and as a coach you can coach a player into doing things better, you can get him to use his hands better, you can get him to get in the weight room and get bigger, fast and stronger ... he's worked on those things."

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Littleton arrived at the training facility for the offseason program having gained about 10 pounds, and it was then that coaches notified him that he would be switched from the "Mo" linebacker, the weak side linebacker in a 3-4, to "Mike," or the strong side.

"There isn't a whole lot of difference," Phillips said of the transition between positions.

But there is added responsibility. At the Mike position, Littleton becomes responsible for relaying the calls from Phillips heard through the earpiece in his helmet to teammates.

The level of communication is something that has taken some adjustment for Littleton, who is admittedly a man of few words.

"Very few," Littleton said. "Very. Few."

Phillips was pleased with his progress through the nine-week offseason program, as Littleton competed against fourth-year pro Bryce Hager and rookie Micah Kiser, a fifth-round pick, at the position.

But there is still room for evaluation throughout training camp, given players did not wear pads through the offseason workouts, making it challenging to gauge Littleton's effectiveness against the run.

"He's done a good job of relaying the signals," Phillips said. "You know, it's harder for inside linebackers in the running game to show themselves with no pads on. He's obviously got coverage skills, and he actually can rush the passer really well from inside, so those are the kind of two things he's doing well, and I think he holds up in the run game too."

Like a spot in the NFL, Littleton knows there are no guarantees that he will be the starter when the season opens in September.

But after enduring the journey from undrafted free agent to practicing as a starter, he's willing to put in the work to close the deal.

"I'm just competing to try to secure it," Littleton said. "I have a lot of tough competition and I'm just going to do my best to try to keep it."