Thursday, March 27, 2008
By Nick Wagoner
After finding himself in a precarious position that could have ended his tenure with the only NFL team he’s ever known, defensive end Leonard Little arrived in St. Louis this week for the team’s offseason conditioning program with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
When you’re one of the team’s highest paid defenders and a veritable one man pass rush, a single sack in seven games and a season ending toe injury isn’t exactly the type of return anyone is looking for.
While Little understands that, he also recognizes that he isn’t that far removed from being one of the best edge rushers in the NFL.
“People don’t remember that the year before that when I had like 13.5 (sacks),” Little said. “I know I can still do it, and obviously the team knows I can still do it. It’s just a matter of me going out and doing it. Last year, I missed a lot of opportunities for sacks and stuff like that. I don’t like to dwell on last year because it’s passed, but I missed a lot of opportunities. This year, I just have to capitalize on opportunities and hopefully come out a little better.”
The opportunity to improve on a disappointing 2007 in which he was regularly getting close to quarterbacks but not finishing the job almost came in a different NFL city.
On Feb. 27, just before the start of the free agency period, the Rams and Little worked to re-structure the multi-million dollar contract he signed near the end of the 2006 season. Little was due a $7.17 million roster bonus and would have had the largest cap number on the team heading into 2008.
That number would have severely affected the team’s ability to make any kind of a splash in free agency. That left both sides with two options: re-structure or part ways.
Little prepared himself for either scenario.
“It’s a business before anything else,” Little said. “I kind of figured if they were going to do it, they were going to do it. If not, then I was going to move on and hopefully go somewhere else. I wasn’t really concerned about it. If it happened, it happened. If it didn’t, it didn’t. I was prepared either way. That’s the way I took it.”
For a player who has been with the Rams for the entirety of his 10-year career, the thought of not being in St. Louis wasn’t the most appealing option.
“It was pretty simple,” Little said. “I thought about it like I was here 10 years of my career, and it would be good to end my career here, but if I had to go to another team, I would be willing to do that.”
Ultimately, Little and the Rams struck a deal that would keep him in St. Louis and save the team upwards of $3.5 million in salary cap space, money the team would spend in the hours after the re-structure.
With that important piece of business out of the way, Little was able to turn his complete attention to getting back to being the team’s best pass rusher.
Little sprained his left big toe on Oct. 14 against Baltimore. He attempted to play the next week against Seattle, but didn’t finish the game and had trouble getting his usual explosive first step because of an inability to push off at the line of scrimmage.
The next week against Cleveland, Little did not play and he took the opportunity to visit leading foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte on the team’s bye week the following week.
After debating the merits of trying to play through the pain, Little and the Rams agreed that he should explore surgery. Little had the surgery in November and has been working toward a return the past few months.
“They’re really trying to take a slow approach with me,” Little said. “They’re really trying to make it come along a little slower. There’s no use in rushing, because we’re still in the offseason. We’re taking it day by day.”
While the Rams and Little are going slow with his rehabilitation, it’s almost certain he will be full speed in time for training camp barring any major setbacks.
Already, Little is feeling better than at any point last season and he has designs on returning to form and helping the Rams defense become a more dominant pass rushing unit.
“It feels better now than it did before I hurt it,” Little said. “If you would have seen it, my toe was messed up before I hurt it. After the surgery and a couple weeks when the swelling went down, it feels a lot better than it did before I did it. I’m not really concerned with hurting it again because it’s going to be a better deal anyway.”