Jets' baby-faced safety plays a mean game

Leonhard doesn't look like the big hitter he is
By Brian Delaney • • Staff Writer • August 3, 2009

CORTLAND - First-year Jets coach Rex Ryan has no shortage of one-liners to describe one of his favorite players, Jim Leonhard.

Since signing with the Jets in March, the 5-foot-8, 186-pound, baby-faced safety has drawn sarcastic comparisons from his coach to a newspaper delivery boy, a high school reserve and an accountant.

Not exactly the depiction NFL safeties typically garner.

"You'd never think this guy plays safety in the NFL," said a smiling Lito Sheppard on Sunday, following the Jets' morning practice at SUNY Cortland. "Jim is a deceiving guy, and I think a lot of people judge him before they actually see him."

Only seeing is believing in Leonhard's case, which began on the playing fields of Flambeau High School in Tony, Wisconsin.

A two-way star as quarterback and safety, he received exactly zero Division I scholarship offers and opted to walk-on to Barry Alvarez's program at the University of Wisconsin.

Despite winning a starting job as a sophomore, he didn't receive a full football scholarship until his senior year. He graduated as co-school recordholder in interceptions with 21.

After college, he signed with Buffalo as an undrafted free agent, and, in a sequence of events that bucked the longshot NFL odds, made the Bills' 53-man roster.

"That was tough," he said. "You know you're not going to get the same opportunities as a drafted guy or veteran. You have to come in and almost be perfect. Not perfect - you can't be afraid of making mistakes - but you know you can't make mistakes consistently. You can't make the same mistake."

Leonhard spent three years in Buffalo before signing a one-year deal with Baltimore in 2008. There, he learned under the watchful, humorous presence of Ryan. Instead of spending the season as a backup, injuries thrust the 26-year old into a starting spot opposite arguably the league's best safety in Ed Reed. He started 13 of 16 games, made 85 tackles, notched a sack and an interception while earning the nickname "White Lightning."

"He disguises coverages about as well as almost anyone outside of Ed Reed in this league," Ryan said.

When Ryan was hired by the Jets, Leonhard made it clear he wanted to follow and did so, signing a three-year deal worth as much as $6 million. Now, for the first time in his NFL career, he's attempting to hold down a starting spot rather than working to just make the roster.

With four interceptions in live play over the weekend, teammates, coaches, newspaper delivery boys, accountants- are all taking notice of No. 36.

"He's a real smart player," tight end Dustin Keller said. "A lot of times, he knows what you're going to do before you actually do it. You've got to keep him guessing. You have to hint that you're running one route when you're really not. You can't really say enough about him."

Leonhard said he loves the freedom in Ryan's defenses, which were a threat to score every play in Baltimore. The defensive unit has dominated the offense in the early stages in camp, although that's considered natural for this stage of the season.

Along with ex-Baltimore teammate Bart Scott, Leonhard is helping his new teammates grasp the nuances of their new defensive system. And his new teammates are learning not to underestimate him.

"He doesn't pass the looks test," Ryan said. "I mean, he's a good-looking kid. Don't get me wrong. But it's like, 'Wow-wee.' "

Said Leonhard: "You know people are doubting you and you know you have to prove yourself day in and day out. I've always taken that mentality even early in my career, when I was getting credit. You just have to go out there with the attitude that you have to outwork people."

Day 3

Day 2 Highlights from There are some great highlights of Jim in here!

Jets Training Camp: Practice #5 Notes
Posted by A. Greenbaum On August - 2 - 2009
# Bart Scott pressures Clemens who is picked off by Jim Leonhard, again.

Jets Player Interviews 8.1.09
Posted by A. Greenbaum On August - 2 - 2009

S Jim Leonhard

On the lateral to Lito Sheppard after his interception near the end of practice…

I don’t know if the Jets fans have seen that. I’ve played with [Ravens S] Ed [Reed] for a year and we’re going to try to put it in the end zone however we can. We have a lot fun, especially in practice. You might see that on Sundays. It’s a little Ed Reed. You never know when the ball’s going to come out. Now I know Lito has the hands, so I have one guy to pitch it too.

On Coach Ryan’s reaction to plays like that…

He wants you to score. If you get it on defense, there aren’t too many offensive guys that are used to tackling, so you want to keep it alive and get in that end zone. Obviously, you have to know situations. You’re not going to do that certain times, but he’s big on defense. If you get your hands on the ball, get it in the end zone, and he’s willing to do that any way possible.
pictures from


Rex Ruan transcript, Aug. 1

Jets Blog
August 1, 2009
Here's what Rex Ryan had to say to the media at training camp today, courtesy of the New York Jets:

On Jim Leonhard and the progress of the other safeties...

He disguises coverages about as well as almost anyone outside of Ed Reed in this League. We were playing a Cover-2 over there (and Leonhard was) all the way behind the numbers, so there's no way he's going to get to the middle of the field. Sure enough, by the time (Clemens) sees his route get open, there's Leonhard. He's that kind of guy. Eric Smith continues to impress me. He just makes plays. Same thing with (James) Ihedigbo. Those guys show up. If we would have had a tackling drill, I think (David Clowney) would have ended up by the bus (laughing). He was coming full speed. The thing I'm really excited about is that we have a lot of tough guys and we have a lot of guys that love to play. You can see that. They're happy to be out there. The linemen obviously aren't (laughs), but the other guys love it. It's really a great group and I'm excited about it.

On what Jim Leonhard looks like without pads...

An accountant or something like that probably (laughs). He's funny. The great thing is we evaluated him when he was coming out of Wisconsin. I evaluated him the way he looked in pads. If he would have shown up (without pads), then he doesn't pass the looks test. I mean he's a good-looking kid, don't get me wrong, but it's like, "wow-wee." I told both him and Woodhead that my kid is playing for Summit High School, that if there is a conflict, they need to play for us and not Summit, they were having to do both I think (laughs). They look like they can be in high school, but those are men right there.

Ryan loves sneaky Leonhard in Jets secondary

August 1, 2009 3:12 PM
Posted by's Tim Graham

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills fans cringe every time they read or hear how good Jim Leonhard has been since their team gave up on him.

The overachieving safety, who made a pair of interceptions Saturday morning at New York Jets training camp, has turned into a captivating NFL defender.

His biggest fan is Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who was Leonhard's defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens last year and targeted him as a must-have free agent.

"Jim Leonhard, I tell you, he disguises coverages about as well as almost anybody outside of Ed Reed in this league," Ryan said when asked of the two interceptions thrown by Kellen Clemens, who otherwise had a phenomenal morning.

"We were playing a Cover 2 over there, all the way behind the numbers. So there's no way he's going to get to the middle of the field. And sure enough, by the time he sees the route come open, there's Leonhard."

Leonhard is listed at 5-foot-8 and 186 pounds. He's entering his fifth NFL season even though a tryout would have surprised most who knew him back home in Ladysmith, Wisc.

Ryan said Leonhard's appearance is more like "an accountant or something like that" than a football player.

"He doesn't pass the look test," Ryan said.

The best college scholarship Leonhard received was for a Division II school, and that's because they wanted him to play baseball. Leonhard walked on at Wisconsin and became a campus legend with scintillating punt returns and defensive play, eventually earning a scholarship. He wasn't drafted.

The Bills signed him in April 2005, waived him before the 2006 season, re-signed him a couple weeks later and then didn't bring him back when his contract expired after 2007.

Leonhard hooked up with the Ravens and, after Dawan Landry suffered a scary spinal injury, started 13 regular-season and three playoff games for a team that came one game away from the Super Bowl. Leonhard finished fourth in tackles with 85. He had one sack and one interception. In the playoffs, he had a half sack, an interception, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

The Bills drafted Donte Whitner sixth overall in 2006. Buffalo's other safeties are George Wilson, Ko Simpson, Bryan Scott and rookie Jairus Byrd, a second-round pick.

"I don't hold a grudge against what they did," Leonhard told me when he signed with the Jets. "The harsh reality is that this is a business as much as it is about football. They decided to go a different way, which happens year in and year out with players."

But he did say he was looking forward to playing Buffalo twice a year, but especially the first time Oct. 18 at the Meadowlands. They'll also play in primetime Dec. 3 in Toronto.

"I'm looking forward to that day, and hopefully we can make it a day that I'll remember for a long time." Leonhard said.

Day 2

2 Interceptions at morning practice! twitter updates from practice
#36 just intercepted clemens again
#11 throws right to #36... picked off... #36 passes back to #26 who almost takes it all the way

Jenkins Hurt In Morning Practice
Aug 1
Clemens threw two interceptions to S Jim Leonhard, but still, in my opinion, won today's round against Sanchez, who just did not impress at all.