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Cory Littleton should cover up huge need for Raiders

Cory Littleton is the Apple TV of NFL linebackers. More post-millennial than retro. More modern than dated.

Mismatches have become extensive as the game evolves. Bodies have been transformed from Mack Trucks to sleek SUVs. You either adapt or get torched.

“The days of the 265-pound linebacker who doesn’t leave the hashes, that’s tough in today’s game,” Raiders safety Jeff Heath said. “Teams’ offenses have so many different guys at every position that can win down the field — that are quick, agile, fast. You got to have guys on defense to match up with those type of players.”

Littleton, 26 and in his prime, is expected to fill what has been a massive need for the Raiders. Not to get all loopy, but it means they might have a puncher’s chance at actually covering Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. No. Seriously. That isn’t heatstroke typing.

While hype is just that until proven otherwise on Sundays, the signing of Littleton ranks among the best free-agent landings in the offseason. He’s new-aged and valuable enough that three years for $35.25 million ($22 million guaranteed) is money well spent on paper.

The Raiders just need it to transfer to his play. Odds are in their favor.

Great in coverage

Do you see the irony? Some of the main predaft concerns from scouts about Littleton in 2016 — where do you play him, could he succeed as a prototypical tweener — are now attributes most believe make him among the best of NFL linebackers.

How good is he? Pro Football Focus assigned the 6-foot-3-inch, 228-pound Littleton the second-best coverage grade among linebackers the past two seasons. The Raiders couldn’t cover air the past two seasons.

“The first thing that stands out (about Littleton) is his athleticism,” Heath said. “He moves like a defensive back but in a linebacker’s body.”

Littleton went undrafted out of the University of Washington, signed with the Los Angeles Rams and had 10 tackles and an interception in a Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots two years later. But it was how he made the Pro Bowl that season — a starter on special teams — that speaks volumes.

So does this: The fact that he’s now a handsomely paid starter still open to sacrificing his body in such a way tells you as much about him as a teammate than anything else.

“My thing is always, ‘find your value,’” Littleton said. “My start (in the NFL) was playing special teams. That’s where my value was. I ended up making some plays out there, and I noticed throughout the years that those plays change games completely and got us wins. That’s still a part of the game to this day.

“If I’m needed, I’d love to do it. At the end of the day, the most important thing is winning.”

His worth to the Raiders is substantial. Dreadful doesn’t begin to describe how their linebackers have looked trying to cover tight ends and chase down running backs. It’s as if those playing the position viewed running sideline to sideline as operating in a 5×10 box. It wasn’t just elite names such as Kelce who feasted. Average ones also have.

And yet the additions of Littleton and fellow free-agent linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski at least offer the Raiders a real opportunity to defend the types of offenses 2020 presents. That’s on the field. Littleton can make an impact off it, too.

Saw culture change

He has experienced the proof of rebuilding and can impart such knowledge within a franchise that has one playoff berth in the past 18 years. Littleton has seen culture change firsthand.

The Rams were 4-12 in his first season, hired Sean McVay as coach and are 35-17 since.

“To be honest, I don’t think there’s a lot of things that need to change with what’s already here,” Littleton said of his new team. “At the end of the day, to myself, it just comes down to a want-to. And me coming here, I see the same type of hunger that we had when we were in L.A. coming off of losing seasons and wanting to be better because you know that you can.

“And everybody here is motivated to doing just that.”

Adapt or get torched. Seems the Raiders have grown tired of the latter.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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