When inside linebacker Cory Littleton signed with the Rams in 2016, general manager Les Snead said he believed they guaranteed him the most money of any undrafted free agent that year.
Since then, Littleton has evolved from a special teams standout to a key piece in the middle of Los Angeles' defense. Now, he is scheduled to become a free agent for a second time and likely to command a much more lucrative deal when the new league year begins.
Littleton led the Rams with 134 total tackles in 2019, a figure which also tied with the Broncos' Todd Davis for eighth-most this season. Scouting service Pro Football Focus (PFF), which evaluated 179 linebackers in the regular season, gave him the highest tackle grade at his position with a 91.6. A 90.0 or higher is considered an elite grade, and Littleton was the only one to accomplish the feat among those who played at least 80 percent of their team's defensive snaps.
The former University of Washington standout also played a pivotal role in coverage with nine pass breakups and two interceptions. PFF's evaluation of him in that category also reinforced this, as his 82.2 coverage grade ranked ninth-highest at his position.
Asked about the final game of the season in Week 17, Littleton said it was the last opportunity for him to be a Ram and play alongside his teammates of the last four years. A reporter followed up on that remark by asking if that was set it stone, but Littleton said he hoped it wasn't and expressed a desire to return to the team.
"I've spent four years here, I've loved being here," Littleton said. "If it's possible, it would be nice, but if not, I understand."
Littleton's options for rejoining in the Rams include re-signing with the them before or after the start of free agency on March 18. Alternatively, the club could also place a tag on Littleton – either the transition tag, non-exclusive franchise tag, or exclusive franchise tag.
The transition tag would allow the Rams to match any offer Littleton receives on the open market. The non-exclusive franchise tag would allow Littleton to negotiate with other teams, but if he reached a deal with another team, that team would owe the Rams significant compensation to sign him. The exclusive franchise tag would prevent Littleton from negotiating with other teams. If Littleton received a tag and signed it, he would be under a one-year contract with L.A. Plus, the team would have until July 15 to sign Littleton to a long-term deal.
Snead said Tuesday he is open to using both a franchise and a transition tag this offseason if it creates a "healthy win-win," but he doesn't want it to lead to any "bad karma" between them and the player that could potentially make its way back to the locker room.
If Littleton does not re-sign, Los Angeles has a few internal options it could go to for his replacement.
Second-year pro Micah Kiser was slated to start alongside Littleton at the other inside linebacker spot before a suffering a season-ending pectoral injury in August. L.A. could also turn to another former undrafted free agent in Troy Reeder, who collected 54 total tackles and two forced fumbles while appearing in all 16 games with eight starts as a rookie this season. Travin Howard, a 2018 seventh-round pick who played in all 16 games in a reserve role, is another possibility.
A fourth option is Bryce Hager, who replaced Kiser but later landed on injured reserve in November with a season-ending shoulder injury. He is the most experienced of the bunch, but the Rams would have to re-sign him as he is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent like Littleton.
Rams head coach Sean McVay has previously said the responsibilities at each of two inside linebacker positions are interchangeable, so all four would seem to be feasible candidates to take Littleton's place.