The Los Angeles Rams have a problem, but it is a good problem to have in a way. They have too much talent. In fact, they have so much talent on defense that they likely must choose between two big playmakers: linebackers Dante Fowler, Jr. and Cory Littleton. The Rams, at the moment, can only afford to keep one due to salary cap constraints.
Both played well for the Rams in 2019. Fowler was second in team sacks with 11.5 (his career best) and Littleton led in tackles with 134 (his career best). They both were consistent, for the most part, even in the Rams’ most embarrassing losses this season. Here’s looking at Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Dallas. Littleton led the Rams in tackles in three of those losses.
Other teams have already shown interest in both players. Littleton is being sought by other teams like the Green Bay Packers. He has become their free agent priority, especially because of his ability to cover receivers and make plays up the middle. Fowler’s contract may be too expensive, and he has great value to other teams in the league searching for a top edge rusher.
The Rams could technically use their franchise tag on one of them, but that will cost them at least $16 million. General manager Les Snead explained that using the tag was not likely though. The Rams have said they are interested in re-signing Fowler and have made Littleton a priority.
Littleton has impressed the past two seasons. He not only led the team in total tackles, but he also led the defense in tackles in nine games for 2019. He had 3.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also led with nine pass deflections along with a career best four fumbles recovered. In 2018, he had a career-high four sacks and three interceptions (including an interception returned for a touchdown). He also led in tackles in the 2018 post-season.
Fowler’s best season came in 2019. In addition to being second in total sacks, he had 58 tackles (including 40 solo tackles and 16 tackles for a loss) and 16 quarterback hits. His tackles for a loss were his career best and more than his last two seasons combined. He had six passes defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He returned a fumble against the Pittsburgh Steelers giving the Rams their only touchdown in that matchup. In the 2018 post-season, Fowler led in tackles for a loss and had 1.5 sacks.
The Rams’ front office sees great value in both players. Littleton showed more consistency throughout the last two seasons. Fowler seems to be revving up for an even better season in 2020. Both players have incredible strengths in their favor that the Rams would love to have back on their roster next year. Realistically, they can only keep one of them, especially given the other Rams free agents they may attempt to keep. Defensive end Michael Brockers, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, kicker Greg Zuerlein and center/guard Austin Blythe are also at the top of the list for free agents the Rams may re-sign for next season.
Between the two linebackers, Littleton has spent the most time with the Rams having joined in 2016. He is a West Coast native of the San Diego area, so Los Angeles would be ideal for him to stay close to home. At 6’3,” 255-pounds, Fowler has the perfect size for an EDGE, a position the Rams desperately need for 2020. The Rams plan to keep their 3-4 defensive scheme, so Fowler would fit perfectly in that role at outside linebacker.
Littleton is a great inside linebacker who has a nose for the ball and is a phenomenal tackler. He only missed five tackles on 139 attempts this year and is the highest-graded tackler, according to Pro Football Focus. Fowler was a sack machine this season and missed eight tackles on 66 attempts. On paper, Littleton would be the better choice given his incredible reliability on the field.
Littleton and Fowler are no strangers to creating problems for their opponents. Their talents are unmatched by many other players at their position in the league. Offenses know they will be challenged when facing them. The Rams need to weigh the talent and overall cost to see which one will stay. The waiting game is on and free agency is set to begin March 18.