The following statement is in no way a dig at Cory Littleton, but perhaps the inside linebacker who came out of nowhere to produce Pro Bowl numbers could easily be replaced by another linebacker to come out of nowhere. Or even more than the “nowhere” that Littleton emerged from.
Let’s take a moment to really think about “great” inside linebackers and Pro Bowl numbers, shall we?
In 2018, Cory Littleton was a first time starter and he had 125 total tackles, nine tackles for a loss, four sacks, and three interceptions. Given that he had only really been on special teams in his first two seasons, Littleton was a surprise member of the Pro Bowl roster that season. But is it possible to have a season with numbers like that and to not be a transcendent linebacker who is difficult to replace?
I think so.
Just looking at the last 10 years, here are some comparable seasons:
- D’Qwell Jackson, Colts, 2014: 138 tackles, 9 TFL, 4 sacks
- Eric Reid, Panthers, 2019: 130 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks (as a safety)
- Daryl Washington, Cardinals, 2012: 134 tackles, 15 TFL, 9 sacks, 1 INT
- Jerrell Freeman, Colts, 2013: 126 tackles, 6 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 INT
- David Harris, Jets, 2014: 123 tackles, 6 TFL, 5.5 sacks
- Blake Martinez, Packers, 2018: 144 tackles, 10 TFL, 5 sacks
- Daryl Smith, Ravens, 2013: 123 tackles, 8 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 INT
- Zach Brown, Bills, 2016: 149 tackles, 11 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 INT
- Malcolm Smith, Raiders, 2015: 122 tackles, 12 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 INT
- James Anderson, Panthers, 2010: 130 tackles, 13 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT
I could go on and on for awhile actually, I’m just stopping here because that seems like enough. Does this look like a list of the best defensive players of the 2010s? These are all real seasons they had. Sometimes they went to the Pro Bowl. Sometimes they got cut.
You know what else I found interesting? I sorted the list by sacks, set a minimum of 130 tackles, and went back to the year 2010. The most sacks went to Washington, whose career was a perfect storm of talent, opportunity, and drugs.
Of the 28 players who had at least 120 tackles and four sacks in the last decade, only five were first round picks, 13 were second round picks, two were third round picks, two fourth round picks, one seventh round pick, and three undrafted, including Littleton, Freeman, and Wesley Woodyard.
But a premier linebacker seems to exist right there in the second round. Three were taken 47th overall: Washington, Harris, and Bobby Wagner.
The Rams don’t seem to have any second round picks in competition to replace Littleton, but I think the evidence of whether or not they can find a player who could be as productive as he’s been over the last two years is evident: 120 tackles, 4 sacks, 10 TFL, and an interception or two is valuable but also potentially replaceable.
Groups I have touched on so far:
The top candidates:
Micah Kiser, 2018 fifth round pick
Kenny Young, 2019 trade acquisition
Travin Howard, 2018 seventh round pick
Troy Reeder, 2019 UDFA (pictured above)
Clay Johnston, 2020 seventh round pick
Kiser was getting the longest looks headed into last season but missed the year with a torn pec. Reeder got the most playing time of this group in 2019. Young is fast and has potential but hasn’t shown it on an NFL field yet. Howard could be the next most likely to get snaps inside with Kiser. Johnston is a complete unknown at this point out of Baylor and won’t get much of a rookie offseason to prepare.
I realize there may be two inside linebackers — Clay Matthews started 13 games last season and must be replaced also — but what we’re really looking for here is the player most likely to replace what Littleton was doing. If it seems necessary, we’ll run a separate page on the number two middle linebacker.
Who starts at inside linebacker for the Rams in 2020 AND has the most potential to replace Littleton’s production there?
1 vote total