A progression from undrafted free agent to special-teams standout to defensive signal caller for the Rams continued for inside linebacker Cory Littleton last season with his selection to the Pro Bowl.
In three seasons, he has developed into one of the Rams’ most versatile, dependable and productive players.
“He’s got great instincts, great awareness,” coach Sean McVay said of Littleton, who participated in the Pro Bowl as a special-teams player. “Cory had a great season last year where he really demonstrated that he’s a big-time linebacker.”
And yet, Littleton’s future with the Rams beyond this season is unclear.
Littleton is playing on a one-year, restricted free-agent contract that will pay him about $3.1 million, a bargain for a Rams team aiming to return to the Super Bowl after losing to the New England Patriots last season.
Littleton, 25, would welcome a generous long-term contract offer from the Rams, but it has not been offered.
“To be with the same guys I’ve been with the past couple seasons would be awesome,” he said.
But Littleton knows that NFL teams are in transition annually: Just look at another remade Rams defense.
In the wake of the $135-million extension that star tackle Aaron Donald received before last season, the Rams had to make some roster decisions going into this season. Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, linebacker Mark Barron and safety Lamarcus Joyner were let go via free agency, partly because of performance and partly because of financial issues. The three players were paid a combined $35 million in 2018.
The Rams re-signed edge rusher Dante Fowler to a one-year deal for $12 million, and then added veteran safety Eric Weddle and linebacker Clay Matthews for a combined $8.75 million this season, according to overthecap.com.
Defensive lineman Michael Brockers, 28, is carrying a salary-cap number of $10.8 million in the final season of his contract. Cornerback Aqib Talib, 33, will receive $8 million in the final season of his two-year deal.
In regard to extensions, Littleton is one of several defensive players for whom the Rams are apparently taking a wait-and-see approach, especially with a massive extension for quarterback Jared Goff looming.
▶ Fowler performed well after his trade-deadline acquisition last season, and — playing a premium position — could be in line for a multiyear contract or perhaps the franchise tag if he shows maturity and produces an outstanding season.
▶ Cornerback Marcus Peters will be paid slightly more than $9 million this season playing on a fifth-year option. He is a candidate for an extension or, possibly, the franchise tag in 2020.
▶ Safety John Johnson, an ascending star, will get slightly more than $867,000 in his third season and will be in line for a possible extension before his fourth if he maintains his trajectory.
Inside linebackers in 3-4 defensive schemes are not apt to generate the attention, eye-popping stats — or the paycheck — that outside linebackers historically have received.
Littleton said his focus was on preparing for the season and winning the Super Bowl — not his contract.
“Once we get to the season, everything is about the season,” he said. “After the season’s over, we’ll see what happens.”
The arrival of Weddle, a 12-year veteran who calls defensive signals, should free Littleton of some responsibility and enable him to make more plays.
Weddle often adjusts coverages before and after the offense snaps the ball. Some players, Weddle said, have difficulty with the concept.
“He can think on the fly, is very instinctual and, obviously, he’s athletic and can do things a lot of other guys can’t,” Weddle said. “He’s super humble and has no ego.
“It was imperative that we would work great together. ... It’s been great.”
The 6-foot-3, 228-pound Littleton backed up, and then started alongside, Barron the last three seasons. Now, Littleton is the mentor for young linebackers such as Micah Kiser, who is competing with Bryce Hager to start at the other inside spot.
Littleton is “the most underrated player” in the NFL, Kiser said.
“He can play every linebacker position,” Kiser said. “If they asked him to play line, I bet he could play D-line. I bet he could play safety.
“He’s just very versatile, very athletic. But at the same time, he’s so smart. ... He’s a really calming presence, so it’s really good to play next to him.”
Also, in front of him as an edge rusher.
“He’s like one of those kids in school — they look like they’re not paying attention and then the teacher asks them something and they just like tell you exactly what [the answer] is,” Fowler said. “He knows everything, inside-out.”
Last week, Littleton and the defense performed well in two practices with the Chargers. On Wednesday and Thursday, they will practice with the Oakland Raiders in Napa in preparation for their preseason opener Saturday in Oakland and the Sept. 8 season opener at the Carolina Panthers.
“We’re showing a lot of good signs,” Littleton said. “Just trying to fit everything together so we’re ready for Week 1.”
Linebacker Justin Lawler was scheduled to have foot surgery Tuesday, McVay said after a one-hour walkthrough in Thousand Oaks. Lawler, a seventh-round draft pick in 2018, played in every game and made six tackles as a rookie. ... The Rams signed punter Brock Miller, who can also serve as a kicker during the preseason, McVay said. Miller, 28, has spent time with the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants but has not played in a game. Having Miller on the preseason roster enables punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein a respite from preseason games. ... Linebacker Samson Ebukam’s participation in workouts with the Raiders was questionable because of hamstring tightness, McVay said.