When the Rams traded Alec Ogletree to the Giants at the start of the 2018 league year, it raised one significant question: Who will replace Ogletree at middle linebacker?
Ogletree had been in the position for the last two years in Los Angeles, having made the switch from weakside linebacker in the Rams' former 4-3 scheme. But more than the on-field production, Ogletree was unquestionably a leader in the team's locker room who helped set a standard of professionalism.
It's somewhat yet to be determined who will step into that leadership role — as Ogletree left some significant shoes to fill. But at least on the field, linebacker Cory Littleton is receiving the first crack at defensive signal-caller.
"When [Littleton] played last year, he's the type of guy that you're creating certain packages just to get him on the field when you've got two really good players inside like an Alec Ogletree and like a Mark Barron," head coach Sean McVay said. "So Cory's made plays over the course of his career when he's gotten opportunities on defense. He's a guy that's got just a lot of little nuances to his game, but you see the athleticism and the instincts show up."
Littleton mainly played behind Barron as Los Angeles' second inside linebacker in the first year under coordinator Wade Phillips in 2017. Littleton started a pair of games because the Rams implemented a defensive package just to get him on the field. Then he played the majority of the Week 15 victory at Seattle when Barron went down with an injury early in the contest. Littleton ended up starting the Week 16 victory over Tennessee — making a key interception — and the Week 17 matchup against the 49ers in Barron's stead as well.
Check out photos from day five of OTAs.
Now, Littleton has moved over slightly to play in the middle of it all.
"'Mike' 'backer is basically the quarterback of the defense. It's a new role for myself — it's something I've never done before," Littleton said this week. "But, just trying to get better every day."
Even as the Rams were making all kinds of moves during the offseason, Littleton said he wasn't necessarily sizing up how the roster might shake out.
"I mean, offseason is the time I get to spend with my family — that's the thing I focus on the most," Littleton said. "Once football came back around, just had to make sure I was in football shape and whatever role I came into, I'd just try to play that."
And so when he found out he'd start out the offseason program as the unit's signal-caller…
"I was actually kind of excited," Littleton said. "Right now, I'm still working to try to secure a starting position. But right now, I'm happy just to be on the field."
Littleton played defensive end in college at Washington, but has successfully made the transition to linebacker in the pros. Nevertheless, there's an adjustment that comes with wearing the green dot on the field — namely making sure that everyone knows what the defensive play is supposed to be.
"Speak a little louder, hope everybody can hear me," Littleton quipped of his approach.
There's plenty to learn off the field, too. Littleton said he's been spending a lot of time watching tape in order to master the nuances of the position.
"[J]ust the keys that a 'Mike' 'backer has to make — just formation recognition, and just all of the work that you have to put in with film review and all those things," Littleton said. "It's a pretty broad aspect — a lot of things I've got to work on."
There's a lot of time between now and Week 1 agains the Raiders on Sept. 10. But as Littleton continues to go through the offseason program, he's working to make the most of the significant opportunity he's received.
"It makes me feel good as a player that they really believe in me," Littleton said. "So I've just got to do what I can to get better and make sure I can prove it."