Cory Littleton was the press-on tattoo book in a box of Cracker Jack for the Raiders this past offseason. The supreme prize from which to begin a defensive resurrection.
But through four games, Littleton has struggled giving the Raiders much life.
One of the best linebackers in the league last year with the Rams has been a nonfactor on a defense that again ranks at or near the bottom of all major NFL categories. Littleton is like most all Raiders defensive players. Just sort of existing.
“I didn’t come here with any expectations,” he said. “Me being on a new team is just me being on a new team. It always comes with challenges. So far, it hasn’t been that great. But, hey, that’s football. Upswings and downswings.”
Here comes Kelce
Things better go way up Sunday, or the 16,000 allowed into Arrowhead Stadium will break some sort of record for sore backs. They might never sit down.
The Raiders wander into a place that has been downright hell for them of late when meeting the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, who have won seven straight in the series when at home. The average score in those games: 29-11.
This is the kind of game that caused the Raiders to award Littleton a three-year, free-agent deal for $36 million. One where the Raiders might finally possess a linebacker who could competently help to cover All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.
In 12 career games against the Raiders — 10 of them Kansas City victories — Kelce has 85 catches for 845 yards and five scores.
In the last two matchups, he has accounted for 29 catches, 427 yards and three touchdowns. A different level guy.
Littleton is more than just a slight mystery at 6 foot 2 inches, 228 pounds. The Raiders were praised throughout the league for finally investing in a major position of need when landing him. For years, linebacker for the Raiders has been defined by plodding veterans who couldn’t cover air. Misses everywhere.
Is it possible they have also missed on Littleton, who has 22 tackles (two for loss) and no sacks this season?
Where is the player who during four years with the Rams earned a 87.3 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, second among all linebackers who entered the league in 2016 and had played a minimum of 200 snaps?
“Cory is very athletic and was an outstanding run-and-hit player,” said Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator for three of the four seasons Littleton was with the Rams. “He was a very good coverage linebacker and an especially good rusher when matched up on a back. Has excellent character. One of my favorite players to have ever coached.”
He’s not the same player here. Not yet. Littleton has a rating of 40.7 in coverage, 36.5 against the run and 34.2 overall this season. He is he grading out No. 65 among 74 eligible linebackers. This, at age 26 and in his prime.
There are two schools of thought as to why. First, that Littleton’s numbers with the Rams were helped by, as much as anything, immense talent around him.
A defense with names like Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler and Jalen Ramsey and Clay Matthews. It doesn’t mean Littleton wasn’t outstanding. He was. He just wasn’t the only one for which teams had to concern themselves.
Picking up defense?
There is also this theory: “Cory is obviously new in the system, so he’s been a little hot and cold.” said Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “I showed him some plays where he has done really good and some plays that he’s not done so good. He’s aware of the things he needs to clean up. Again, he’s another new guy that each week something in our system may present something different.”
Not buying it. Littleton is perceived as one of the smartest of NFL players. The idea he hasn’t yet totally grasped the system is a huge reach. He’s a five-year veteran. He knows where to line up.
Career numbers suggest he will get better and, for it, so too could the defense. But like many on that side of the ball, he needs to begin justifying a contract. The one worth $36 million over three years, of which $22 million is guaranteed.
“Hopefully, I will get back on track and be the player I want to be,” Littleton said.
The Raiders hope and pray that begins Sunday.
Travis Kelce is deadly against air.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.
Cory Littleton numbers
Following are season-by-season Pro Football Focus ratings among eligible linebackers.
2016: vs. run (51.5); pass rush (63.2), coverage (59.7), overall (55.4).
2017: vs. run (50.5), pass rush (77.4), coverage (61.9), overall (60.2).
2018: vs. run (42.4), pass rush (66.3), coverage (83.1), overall (66.0).
2019: vs. run (64.7), pass rush (78.2), coverage (82.3), overall (79.0).
2020: vs. run (36.5), pass rush (52,7), coverage (40.7), overall (34.2)
** 2016-2019 is with Los Angeles Rams.
** 2020 is through four games with the Raiders.