By all rights, Cory Littleton had outgrown his special teams days by his third season with the Los Angeles Rams.
He had grown from undrafted free agent to special teams MVP to one of the anchors of the Rams defense. His new status as one of the NFL’s best sideline-to-sideline linebackers gave him the right to pass along his punt and kickoff responsibilities to younger teammates.
Littleton, though, was having none of that. It’s one reason the Raiders signed him to a three-year, $36 million free-agent deal in March.
“I mean it was my first excitement coming into this league. It was my main role,” said Littleton. “It’s something that, honestly, most people don’t like doing but it grew on me, so I can’t stop doing it.”
It explains how the same season he had team-high 125 tackles and four sacks, 13 pass deflections, three interceptions — including one for a touchdown — as the Rams inside linebacker he was also their best special teams player. It’s a role he attacked in practice, the classroom and in games. In the process, he earned a spot in the Pro Bowl by always being in the center of the action, delivering the two momentum-swinging blocked punts.
Last season Littleton again led the Rams with 134 tackles. He also played 105 special teams snaps.
Whether he continues to play special teams with the Raiders remains to be seen. Part of that is dependent his role. The fact that he is interested explains quite a bit.
“Cory is the type of guy who, if you don’t go up and start a conversation with him he’s a dude that you might not hear him talk the entire day,” said Rams linebacker coach Joe Barry, who pleaded with Washington Redskins decision makers to draft Littleton in 2016 as their defensive coordinator, only to end up working him a year later. “But when you do talk to him, you can see that he hears everything, he sees everything, he’s in tune with everything.
“He might be chill and laid back, but he’s an intense human being. Selfishly, for me and the Rams, I wish he was still here. But big picture, I’m just totally happy for him to get everything he deserves.”
In a Rams’ locker room that stressed accountability, Littleton’s unselfishness and conscientiousness stood out. He arrived in Los Angeles as an undrafted free agent, but quickly took advantage of every chance the Rams gave him.
It entailed mastering every role he was given over the next two years. He played so well the Rams had no choice but to figure out more ways to get him on the field.
By year three he earned a starting role and emerged as one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Two seasons later, he is the jewel of the Raiders’ free agency class and one of the foundational pieces of their rebuilt defense.
“I can honestly tell you everybody comes into this with how they want to shape their future with what they want to do,” Littleton said. “And everything pretty much went according to plan for me. I’m thankful for that opportunity.”
The thoroughness Littleton adds as a player should fit with the Raiders, who are trying to construct a team that emphasizes character as much as ability. In turn, Littleton sees a team that is heading places.
“To me, they’ve made a lot of great strides in the right direction, especially since Jon Gruden got there,” Littleton said. “And just to be a part of that, I believe we have a chance to do something special.”
Barry said it goes beyond just the athletic ability than enables Littleton to defend a range of athletes. It’s also his mindset.
“He would never arrogantly voice it, he will never say it, but deep down, in Cory’s mind, he’s like, ‘I don’t give a (darn) who you are, I’m gonna cover your (butt). I don’t care if you’re (Travis) Kelce in Kansas City or if you’re George Kittle with the 49ers or Alvin Kamara. I don’t care who you are. If I have to go out and cover you, man to man, I’m going to be able to do it.”
The San Diego native is being counted to upgrade the Raiders’ linebacker corps, which was victimized last year. Pass coverage was a particular weakness and Littleton has been among the top two cover linebackers in the league the last two seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Cory Littleton covers as well as anybody in the league,” said Raiders general manager Mike Mayock.
Littleton is joined in Las Vegas by fellow free agent pickup Nick Kwiatkoski, who emerged last year with the Chicago Bears as a three-down linebacker able to defend the run and the pass. He is eager to play his part in turning a weakness into a strength.
“As long as I learn this defense the goal is to play just as good as I have been,” Littleton said. “And really, I want yo set the goal of even surpassing what I’ve done.”
Littleton said the allure of the Raiders was multifaceted. Obviously money played a factor, but so did the prestige of a franchise that always seem to attract the attention of people within his circle.
“It’s an organization that, if you know anything about football then you know about this team,” he said. “I’ve had family members that have loved this franchise for decades.”
The proximity to home also was an added attraction.
“It isn’t the number one factor but it’s definitely a big plus for me being able to come to this organization,” Littleton said. “I love that it’s close to San Diego and close to home. It’s close to family and friends.”