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Cory Littleton is redefining the linebacker position with his hybrid size and athleticism

Cory Littleton has earned the title of one of the premier coverage linebackers in the NFL, but he wasn't always a well-respected prospect.

The former University of Washington Husky went undrafted in the 2016 NFL Draft, but the Los Angeles Rams took a flier on him. Littleton specialized as a pass rusher in college, but given his size, the Rams' coaching staff thought he would be best suited as a linebacker. Playing in 16 games his rookie season, Littleton earned more playing time on defense after carving out an important role on special teams.

Special teams isn't the most glamorous job, but its impact on the game is undeniable, which is why undrafted players need to understand its benefits.

"My thing is always 'find your value,'" Littleton said Sunday. "My start was playing special teams, that's where my value was. I ended up making some plays out there and I noticed throughout the years that those plays change games completely and change the whole turn out and got us wins. That's still a part of the game to this day."

During his four-year tenure with the Rams, Littleton went from special teams role player to full-time starter, totaling 37 starts, six interceptions, 26 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, eight-and-a-half sacks, and 315 tackles. Littleton was one of the most highly coveted free agents this offseason, and after going undrafted, receiving his first major contract from the Las Vegas Raiders was rewarding.

"It was a great feeling," Littleton recalled. "Something that you work for every day when you come out on the field. Me coming to the Raiders, I just really wanted to continue my career and the Raiders seemed like a good fit for myself and they were open to me coming in and I'm just happy they made the decision to bring me in."

It's been years since the Raiders possessed a group of linebackers capable of covering everything in between the hash marks, but they finally have a duo in Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski who can change the makeup of the defense.

Former Los Angeles Ram Lamarcus Joyner played alongside Littleton for four years, serving key roles in the team's 2018 postseason run to the Super Bowl. Reunited, Joyner knows firsthand how the addition of Littleton will help make everyone's job on defense a little easier.

"With a defense like [Paul Guenther's], where you have to trust the man next to you," Joyner said Friday, "he's very trustworthy and he's going to allow the players at the safety and nickelback position to make a lot more plays, trusting that he'll be there to help you out with leverage."

Littleton's football IQ is impressive, but fellow new addition Jeff Heath says his athleticism is on par with his knowledge of the game. In the short time the Raiders have been practicing during training camp, Heath has observed Littleton from the third level of the defense and watched him react to plays as they develop.

"I think the first thing that stands out is his athleticism," Heath said Sunday. "He moves like a [defensive back] but he's in a linebacker's body. He's very fast and very fluid. This league is all about matchups now and offenses will have so many different guys at every position that can win down the field. Quick, agile, fast, so you have to have guys on defense to match up with those type of players. The days of the 265-pound linebacker doesn't leave the hashes, that's tough in today's game."

Gone are the days of the Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis prototypes, the hybrid linebacker is the future and it's required to cover the league's dynamic tight ends, especially in the AFC West. Littleton is going to be a major reason the Raiders' defense takes a step forward in 2020 and beyond.

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