An undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, Jim Leonhard didn't make his first pro start until late in his second season — and it came against the Jets.
"Donte Whitner was sick and couldn't make the trip, so I got my first start. I think we actually got a win that day. I know you don't want to hear that, but it was fun," he said today of the Buffalo Bills' 31-13 rout at the Meadowlands on Dec. 10, 2006. "Obviously that first experience, that first taste of getting a start and getting a lot of action in the NFL was huge for me. It meant a lot and it gave me a lot of confidence to go on to do bigger and better things."
And the 5'8", 186-pound Leonhard definitely has gone on to bigger and better things. After becoming a full-time regular last season at strong safety with Baltimore, he followed Rex Ryan, his Ravens defensive coordinator, to the New York area and inked a deal with the Green & White on Tuesday.
"I'm really excited to have the opportunity to get back with Rex and play in New York," he said in another exclusive "Jets Two-Minute Drive" show on newyorkjets.com radio. "Being in Buffalo for three years, I was very familiar with the Jets and it always seemed like a great place to play. Now I'm glad I get to wear the other jersey, I get to wear that green."
In addition to his work in the defensive backfield, Leonhard figures to take over punt return duties from Leon Washington. He is coming off a season in which he registered 85 tackles on defense and averaged 11.6 yards in his PR role.
And as Randy Lange pointed out to Leonhard this morning, the newest Jet also last season became the only NFL player over the last two seasons to register a sack, an interception, a punt return, a kickoff return and a touchdown all in the same season.
"It's kind of crazy to think that you did something that doesn't happen very often. It's fun," Leonhard said. "Being a versatile player means a lot to me, being able to help your team in multiple different ways. The honor of being the only person to do that in the last couple of years, it means a lot and hopefully I will be able to continue to do that."
Even though he might look like your paperboy, that doesn't mean Leonhard hasn't been a star in the production world. An all-state selection at Flambeau HS in Tony, Wis., he wasn't recruited by a single NCAA Division I school. Undeterred, he walked on at Wisconsin and wound up finishing tied for the school record with 21 interceptions and setting a Big Ten record with 1,347 punt return yards.
"I'm very confident in my athletic ability," he said, "but the big story that everyone can latch on to is I'm undersized and I don't look the part, so I don't get the credit necessarily for being that talented of an athlete."
Despite the collegiate accolades, Leonhard was ignored in the 2005 draft, signed with B-Lo and became the only UDFA to make the Bills' opening-day roster. He played six games with the Bills in '06 and then started six contests in '07, registering 51 tackles and his first two interceptions.
Then last season marked the Leonhard breakthrough under Ryan. He excelled, making a career-high 13 starts in the regular season and then following up with game-changing plays (16 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR and a 12.8 PR average) during the Ravens' playoff run.
"Rex does a great job of getting the right players and trusting those players to make decisions and make plays," he said. "I think any time as a player when you feel like you have the trust of the coaches and you can just go out there and not worry about making mistakes and not worry about getting yelled at and just go make plays, I think all players love that."
If you didn't know better, you'd say this story is some kind of urban legend. Leonhard, Ryan says, "can catch a punt in a hurricane" and despite his height he won two dunk contests at Wisconsin. After being passed over by every NCAA Division I school and by every NFL team at least once, the dude just keeps on motoring on.
"It happens so many times in this league where a guy never really gets a chance," he said. "I'm just very happy that I got my opportunity and now I'm looking to run with it here with the Jets."