Leonard Little the Answer for the Packers at Outside Linebacker?

Nicholas KashianContributor IIMay 4, 2010

ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 27:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers scrambles against Leonard Little #91 of the St. Louis Rams during the game at the Edward Jones Dome on September 27, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The draft has come and gone and the Packers brass has already gotten its first look at their bounty on the field at rookie orientation.

Several outside linebacker prospects were among the throng of draft picks, tryout players, and undrafted free agents on the field over the weekend. The most notable among them were Tim Knicky, Frank Zombo, and John Russell, who all have flashed potential but are college defensive linemen who will be converting to linebacker and may need time to develop before they are ready to make an impact.

The Packers also have Brady Poppinga, street free agent Robert Francois, and 2009 practice squad player Cyril Obiozor behind starters Brad Jones and Clay Matthews III.

However, if general manger Ted Thompson has determined that he doesn't have a viable pass rusher on the roster to compete with incumbent Jones, it may not be Adalius Thomas, Greg Ellis, or Derrick Burgess, but the 35-year-old Leonard Little that could be the answer.

It would be a major departure from Thompson's previous history as a GM. He rarely signs other teams' free agents and has never added a 35-year-old player to what has been perennially one of the youngest rosters, if not the youngest, in the league under Thompson.

However, the Packers coaches would be wise to encourage Thompson to sign Little, an unrestricted free agent that could likely be had for around $2 million on a one-year deal. What would amount to a very small financial risk for one of the league's most financially healthy franchises could turn out to be the move that would shore up the Packers defense, propelling them to a Super Bowl run.   

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Little has played his entire 12-year career at defensive end for the St. Louis Rams after being drafted in the third round No. 65 overall out of Tennessee in the 1998 draft. He played middle linebacker at Tennessee and would be an outside linebacker in Green Bay.

At 6'3", 267 lbs., Little has ideal size for a pass-rushing linebacker in the 3-4 defence. He has 87.5 career sacks, 344 tackles, two interceptions, and 32 forced fumbles, even after not forcing a single one his first three seasons.

However, the last season in which he recorded double-digit sacks was 2006, when he finished with 13 sacks and 58 tackles. 2006 was also the last time he played a full season, starting all 16 games. Over the past three seasons he has 13.5 sacks, 60 tackles, and three forced fumbles while starting 25 of the 34 games in which he appeared.

Little has shown improvement since playing in and starting just seven games during the 2007 season, recording just 19 tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble.

He rebounded in 2008 as a situation rusher. Playing in 14 games while starting just five, he had six sacks, 18 tackles, and two forced fumbles. In 2009 he again had a respectable season, starting in all 13 games in which he played, recording 6.5 sacks, 23 tackles, and an interception.

As a situational pass rusher in 2010, Little could easily eclipse his 2009 numbers.

You have to remember that he has been playing on a horrible team in St. Louis, and that his 2009 sack total of 6.5 would have been good for second most on the Packers behind only Matthews' 10. Being around more talented players would surely provide a spark to Little's game.

Little would likely not struggle as much as 4-3 end Aaron Kampman did in his transition to 3-4 outside linebacker for a few reasons.

First, Little played his college career at middle linebacker, being converted to a defensive end at the pro level. Second, Little is a much better athlete in space than Kampman is. I'm not saying Little is a better pass rusher, although that is definitely debatable.

One play last season in particular showed why Little would be at least serviceable in coverage as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.

It was his interception of the Jaguars' David Garrard on a pass into the flat for running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Demonstrating he can handle the coverage responsibilities of a 3-4 OLB, Little, from his DE position, read the play, made a great break on the ball, and sprinted 36 yards into the end zone for a touchdown.

Even at his advanced age, I believe Little has enough left in the tank to really help the Packers defense as a situational pass rusher playing behind second-year player Brad Jones. The Packers should act quickly to sign Little, as he could be the final piece to their defensive puzzle.

Little would give Dom Capers another legitimate pass rusher to pair with Matthews in his 3-4 defense. Opposing offenses would not be able to worry solely about Matthews, double-teaming him in all passing situations.

At this point in his career, I believe Little would be rejuvenated and highly motivated by the chance to play for another Super Bowl contender after playing for a woeful Rams team over the past three years. Viewing this as one last shot at getting another ring, Little could really excel.

Besides being the type of bona fide pass rusher the Packers need opposite Matthews, Little also brings something else to the Packers they are lacking: Super Bowl experience.

Little was a member of the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" 2000 team that went on to win the most closely contested Super Bowl of all time, which ended with the Rams defense making a stop at their own one-yard line as time expired.

That's a valuable experience that could help this young Packers team get over the hurdles necessary to make a run to the Super Bowl in 2010.