It is not often that a one time rookie free agent makes a significant jump up the depth chart in only their third year in the NFL. Despite being criticized as undersized when he entered the league, Jim Leonhard is steadily making that climb.
Although Leonhard does not possess the top measurables that some defensive backs hold he makes up for it with his unparalleled knowledge of the game.
"Jim is, if not the smartest, one of the smartest people we have in the secondary," said secondary coach George Catavolos. "The man knows our schemes, he recognizes formations, he makes the correct calls and he is probably the most verbal guy we have in the secondary right now."
Leonhard's excellent anticipation skills and his approach as a student of the game more than make up for what he lacks in what is measured at the combine. His assets have translated into a greatly increased role in Buffalo's defense.
Last season Leonhard saw time as a sub in the nickel package behind Kiwaukee Thomas. This season Donte Whitner is Thomas' backup as the nickel cornerback. Since Whitner has less experience as the nickel corner he has spent considerable time learning his new responsibility. When Whitner bumps down to play corner Leonhard is the one filling the void at safety.
"I've had a great opportunity to get some reps; it's nice to have a safety like Donte who can play a lot of things," said Leonhard. "Bumping him around helps to get me moved around and to get me in the action a little more."
Leonhard uses his lightning quick diagnosis as a play unfolds to be in position to make the proper plays every down. His field general mind-set is what has put him in many of the Bills sub packages this season. Whether it is in the film room or by sticking his nose in a playbook, Leonhard doesn't stop working to better understand the Bills defensive schemes.
"Studying helps me out a lot. The more times you can see something the more comfortable you feel when you get on the field and actually see it coming at you live," said Leonhard. "I really like going in and watching film just for the fact that it helps slow things down for me."
His incredible work ethic has been noticed by the coaching staff, a clear factor in his increased time on the field.
"I think he is a natural and gifted athlete but I think it is how he prepares, that he studies hard off the field, he watches film, he understands what we are asking him to do in the scheme and he does a good job with that," said Catavolos.
As a student of the game Leonhard is able to dissect plays in order to be better prepared on the field. However, live football settings are not the only place where Leonhard's responsibilities have increased. As a veteran in a young secondary he has seen many players coming to him for advice, something that he welcomes with open arms.
"A lot of the young guys, I try to get with them a lot," said Leonhard. "It helps me out as well by trying to make it as simple as it can be. You try and simplify the game so you only have to think about one or two things so you can make more plays and that is what this game is all about. I try to help out the young guys a lot in turn it helps me out as well."
Recently, Leonhard has been spending time after practice working with rookie safety Trevor Hooper on where he needs to be as a gunner on the punt team. Hooper, who has acknowledged the importance of special teams in making the team, has also turned to Leonhard for help defensively.
"I ask Jim questions all throughout practice. Not so much on scheme because I feel that I have a good grasp on that but more technique and where your eyes are," said Hooper. "It is more asking 'Hey Jim how would you play this, this and this?' He has been more than helpful and I appreciate that a lot."
A player who is always working to know more about the game Leonhard is able to reinforce his knowledge as well as his teammates. Being only three years removed from his rookie season also helps. Leonhard knows what it is like having to learn a new aspect of the defense every day.
"There are little things I pick up all the time just by teaching," said Leonhard. "It works both ways, they're real smart and they pick things up right away but there are a lot of things that gets thrown at them, especially early in camp."
Leonhard will surely receive much more time in the nickel and base defense as training camp progresses. As someone who scours film to better understand schemes, Leonhard will undoubtedly find more opportunities to get on the playing field.
"I think it is all about getting opportunities and the more opportunities you have the more you can play," said Leonhard.
And if Leonhard gets more chances on the field in 2007 opposing offenses will quickly come to learn just how prepared he is to play.