Four years ago, as an undrafted rookie, Cory Littleton played 23 special-teams snaps in the Rams’ opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
He developed into a special-teams standout that season and eventually became a valued backup linebacker. In 2018, he emerged as the starting middle linebacker and a team leader, and was voted to the Pro Bowl.
This season, Littleton is once again the leading tackler for a Rams team that plays its finale Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals at the Coliseum.
It might be Littleton’s final game with the Rams.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” Littleton said Friday.
After outperforming his contract in each of his four seasons, Littleton, 26, wants to be compensated accordingly. He made nearly $3.1 million this season on a one-year restricted free agent deal.
Now he is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, Littleton’s former teammate at the University of Washington, recently signed a four-year, $54.16-million extension that includes $27.98 million in guarantees, according to overthecap.com.
“That’s my dog right there,” Littleton said. “I still talk to him to this day.”
Is it time for Littleton to cash in?
“Most definitely,” said Littleton, who added that he plays for the love of the game but also to help secure a financial future.
Littleton is one of several Rams who could be financially-driven casualties in the aftermath of monster contracts signed by teammates.
In the last 18 months, receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, quarterback Jared Goff and defensive lineman Aaron Donald received massive extensions. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is scheduled to make $13.7 million in 2020 and is in line for a record-breaking extension.
Because of those commitments, the Rams might not be able to afford Littleton, edge rusher Dante Fowler, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, safety Eric Weddle and others.
Littleton has not ruled out re-signing with the Rams.
“I spent four years here,” he said. “I love being here. If it’s possible, it would be nice. If it’s not I understand.”
Littleton has “truly been a complete player,” for the Rams, coach Sean McVay said.
“He’s definitely earned the right to be mentioned amongst some of the really good football players and some of the best inside linebackers in this league,” McVay said.
But in the always-churning NFL, financial decisions influence rosters every year. The salary cap in 2020 is estimated to be about $199 million. The Rams have about $24.2 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com
“You’d love to see everyone get paid, you’d love to be able to keep everybody,” McVay said. “Unfortunately, that’s not real and that’s not realistic.
“You’d always love to be able to retain your own guys. As you’re continuing to kind of navigate through what’s the best way to shape out our roster, given the financials and all those types of things, those are things that you work through.
“Frustrating, but something that you have to deal with, and everybody has to deal with that.”
If the game on Sunday is Littleton’s last one with the Rams, he wants to make the most of it. Just as he does before every game, he said he would find Fowler, tell him to have a good game and assure him that Littleton intended to have a good one as well.
“Hopefully, that’s just the case,” Littleton said, “and we go out there and show what team we could have been.”
Brockers (knee) was a full participant in practice and will play Sunday. Kick returner Nsimba Webster (concussion) was a full participant. He is expected to be cleared from concussion protocol on Saturday and play Sunday. ... Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (hamstring) was limited Friday and listed as questionable for the game.