As an undrafted free agent back in 2005, it would have been easy for Jim Leonhard to look around and realize that he didn’t exactly fit in with some of the behemoths in the Buffalo Bills training camp.
Standing 5-foot-8 and weighing 188 pounds, Leonhard probably looked more like a ball boy or an equipment manager to some of his new teammates in those early days of his professional career.
He was determined to prove that being 6 inches shorter and about 15 pounds lighter than the prototypical NFL safety wouldn’t derail a career that took him to three other stops before signing with the New Orleans Saints this spring.
In other words, being stereotyped wasn’t going to keep Leonhard down.
“Absolutely,” he said about being bypassed in the draft, “you can easily be overlooked when you don’t have the physical attributes you’re used to seeing. But it doesn’t matter. You realize early in your career that guys look different.
“You’re working with grown men here, but not all of them look like Superman,” he said with a smile. “If you know how to play the game and have the heart and courage to do it, you can be successful in this game.”
With that in mind, Leonhard set about carving out a decent NFL career that entered its ninth season with the start of training camp last week.
With 110 games and 61 starts, plus another six starts in the postseason, Leonhard is one of the more versatile members of the Saints’ new-look secondary with an ability to return punts and kickoffs.
Leonhard would have more games under his belt had he not missed eight games in 2010 and ’11 with the New York Jets because of a broken leg and a patella tendon injury.
Despite the injuries, which led to the Jets letting him walk in free agency, Leonhard still remembers what got him this far when he had little chance of making it in the first place.
“I think all young players have to learn very early in their career that this is a business, it’s a profession, and you have to put in as much time as you need,” he said proudly.
“Everyone is different, but you have to put in the work. … I feel like I did that.
“I had a lot of veterans around me that I could learn from and kept my head down and went to work.”
Nine years later, he’s still putting in the time.
With the Saints, Leonhard’s already made an impact and is playing with the second-team defense behind starter Roman Harper even though he’s still not exactly certain how he’ll fit in with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s secondary.
“I’m just trying to come in, work hard and learn the defense and communicate with my teammates,” Leonhard said. “I have no idea what my responsibility is going to be, whether it’s special teams or playing defense. You just come to work and keep your head down and try to bring the whole team with you — and see what happens at the end of the day.”
Leonhard said he learned that after his rookie season with the Bills.
By his second season, he had a sense he belonged despite what he may have looked like next to some of his larger teammates.
“I knew I could play. I had enough experience as a rookie I realized I had the ability to play at this level,” Leonhard said. “It was about continuing to push myself, and become smarter and learn the game. I realized I could make it a career rather than just being here a year or two.”
Over the years, he’s earned a reputation for being an aggressive player and a ferocious hitter in the back end of the secondary while playing for teams that reached three AFC championship games.
“You have to be aggressive in this league to make plays, and I feel like I’ve managed to do that throughout my career,” Leonhard said. “It’s kind of a by-any-means-necessary mentality … you do whatever it takes to get the job done.
“You have to do it, but I enjoy it. I enjoy the physicality of the game.”
Which means he stands to give the Saints another hard hitter to go with Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and rookie Kenny Vaccaro.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “We’re deep and we’ve got talent. We’ve got a lot of young guys people don’t know about that can make plays, so it’s been fun.”