NFL free agency is just over two weeks away, and soon the Detroit Lions will have a bunch of new faces to hopefully bring some optimism to a franchise that’s currently headed in the wrong direction. Already, there are plenty of names out there that seem like potential targets for Detroit, whether it be a top defensive tackle like D.J. Reader or a veteran cornerback like Chris Harris Jr.
But PFF (via ESPN) took a different approach to the Lions’ free agency period on Monday when they listed 32 free agents that would be a “perfect match” for each NFL team. Their choice for the Lions? Rams free agent linebacker Cory Littleton.
“Littleton would step in and elevate the [linebacker] group, particularly in coverage,” PFF wrote. “His 90.6 coverage grade over the past two seasons ranks third in the NFL behind only Lavonte David and Luke Kuechly.”
On the surface, that argument certainly holds. The Lions have really struggled in coverage at linebacker, with both Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones failing to provide steady play there.
However, I don’t think PFF’s line of thinking measures up with Detroit’s. Both head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn have made it clear through their actions and their words that they prefer their linebackers big, long and strong.
“We like thick, built linebackers—really thick guys that can take on blocks, but when they play on the edge, they have enough playing strength and enough arm length to set the edge like where Kennard plays,” Quinn said last April after drafting 6-foot-2, 250-pound Jahlani Tavai with a second-round pick.
Those adjectives do not at all describe Littleton. Littleton is 6-foot-3, 228 pounds. By comparison, Jones is 6-foot-3, 250 pounds and Jarrad Davis is 6-foot-1, 245 pounds. Littleton is hardly a perfect match here.
That is made all the more apparent by Detroit’s use of the one player that fits Littleton’s body type: Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The Lions’ 2017 fourth-round pick has played well on special teams, but the Lions refuse to use him much on defense, despite his flashes of decent coverage abilities.
Littleton is a lot like Reeves-Maybin, but with the proven experience on the field. In the past two seasons, he’s tallied 22 pass breakups (most among all NFL linebackers) and five interceptions (t-third).
He also adds a good amount of pass rush, totalling 7.5 sacks over the past two seasons, similar to the output of Jarrad Davis (8.0).
But as a run defender, Littleton has just been okay, earning PFF run defense grades of 64.7 and 41.1 in 2019 and 2018 respectively. Would the Lions be willing to spend upwards of $14-15 million a year for that? I doubt it.
“The days of run-stuffing specialists at linebacker are over, and players like Littleton who are versatile in coverage add the most value to NFL teams,” PFF wrote.
Try telling that one to Matt Patricia, PFF.