Jim Leonhard is now the marquee starting safety for the New York Jets, but he had to take a long and circuitous path to get there. He was a walk-on at the University of Wisconsin, though he became a three-time first-team Big-10 player once he got there. And despite what he did in college, the undersized (5-foot-8, 188 pounds) Leonhard found it impossible to get on anyone's radar in the draft.
He spent three years with the Buffalo Bills, signed with the Baltimore Ravens and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan in 2008, and then followed Ryan to the Jets in 2009. Against pretty tremendous odds, he's become one of the better players at his position at a time when safeties have become more important to the game than ever.
It was our pleasure to talk with Jim recently — we were able to cover enough subjects to put together a two-part interview. You can find Part 1 here. In the conclusion of our interview, Jim discusses how he plans to bounce back from a 2010 season that didn't turn out the way he wanted, what he's learned about determination in his life, and just how much the safety position has changed since he made it to the NFL in 2005.
Shutdown Corner: The safety position has obviously becomes one of the most important in the game today — we see this with the mega-deals given to Eric Weddle and Troy Polamalu, young players like Eric Berry and Earl Thomas making such a difference, and the effect it's had on teams when guys like Polamalu, Berry, and you have been out for a while with injuries. How have you seen the safety position change since you came into the league in 2005?
Jim Leonhard: Well, the game is much more of a wide-open, spread game than it used to be. And you're seeing your traditional strong safety, in the box, near the line of scrimmage safety … that position is very rare nowadays. Because if you can't move, if you can't cover tight ends, if you can't cover deep halves in the middle of the field, you're going to get run out of the league. So, I think you're seeing a huge shift in personnel and how teams are using their safeties. You have to not only stick it up there in the running game, but you also have to able to run and cover receivers.
SC: You went from college walk-on to three-time first-team all Big-10. Then you were an undrafted rookie coming out of the University of Wisconsin — how much of a chip did that put on your shoulder, and did the NFL game come more naturally to you that maybe you expected? Because you played well right from the start.
JL: I definitely had a chip on my shoulder, coming out of high school and college. I felt that I was overlooked, even though I had a lot of success, but that only takes you so far. Being undersized, you have to learn the game. You have to understand how to make different situations favorable to you, because otherwise, you're going to get beat, and you're not going to stick around. So, I definitely credit my being undersized as the reason I really had to learn the game. You'd better have good instincts, or you're really going to be off base. So, I definitely had that chip on my shoulder early in my career, but now, it's all about the Super Bowl and chasing that ring.
SC: Right, and your injury absence really seemed to affect the team down the stretch in 2010, which emphasized your importance. In two straight years, the Jets have come up one game short of the Super Bowl. Everything seems to be in line for the Jets to win it all, but how do you get to that next step?
JL: We've got to close the year off. It's tough to go on the road and win three games in a row against the best teams in the league and in your division. We want to get some home playoff games, first of all, and then, we have got to close that AFC Championship game out. In each of those games, we've played two games very well, and two games very poorly. So, we need to figure out whatever it to close it off and get a victory.
SC: You replaced guys like Ko Simpson and Dawan Landry on your way up the NFL ladder before you were a full-time starter, and you made the most of the chances you were given. What would you like to say to younger players at any level about the importance of seizing opportunity whenever it comes?
JL: I think the biggest thing is just that you never know when your opportunity is going to come. You can never assume that, "Well, you know, next year is going to be the year." Injuries happen, bad plays happen in front you … you never know what the reason is. But you're usually not handed that spot; you have to go out there and get it. I've always been prepared when it came up, and I'm very fortunate that I've had that success when my number was called.
SC: I wanted to get a few quick scouting reports from you before we wrap this up, First, Mark Sanchez…
JL: Sanchez? He's taking that step in his third year in an NFL offense. He's ready to break out.
SC: Darrelle Revis?
JL: The best in the business. That's all there is to it.
SC: And how about that Jim Leonhard guy? What's he looking like these days?
JL: He's going to make a strong comeback; you'd better believe that. He wasn't happy at how things turned out last season, so he's ready to make a strong run.