The Jets have struggled to find quality play at the safety position for years. They have tried pretty much everything. The Draft has produced underwhelming figures like Andre Maddox, Eric Smith, and Erik Coleman. Free agency has brought outright busts like Damien Robinson, Reggie Tongue, and Steve Atwater. About a decade ago, the team even tried unsuccessfully converting Scott Frost, a championship winning option quarterback, into a safety. The selection of Kerry Rhodes in 2005 finally locked down one of the starting safety spots. Now the team can only hope the signing of Jim Leonhard takes care of the other spot.
Gang Green rotated Eric Smith and Abram Elam in the spot opposite Rhodes last year. Smith is a heady player with good instincts, but simply does not have the athletic ability to be effective as a starter in the NFL. Elam is a big hitter and effective blitzer who made a number of impact plays. However, his lack of instincts made him something of a liability in coverage. He also had a propensity for missing tackles at the most inopportune of times. Leonhard on paper gives the Jets the best of both players.
As a walk on in college and an undrafted free agent in the pros, Leonhard's lack of measurables made teams disinterested. It took intangibles such as intellect and instincts to stick on a pro roster. Once he finally got a chance to start with the Ravens in 2008, Leonhard showed he belonged in the role. Even though he only stands at 5'8" Jim earned a reputation for laying big hits. "He has a nose for the football," has become one of the sport's most trite cliches, but it might apply in this case. Leonhard was involved on a sizable number of big plays during Baltimore's run to the AFC Championship Game. He recorded 69 tackles in the regular season and was involved in four Postseason turnovers (including a pressure on Kerry Collins that led to one) in addition to half a sack. Jim combines this playmaking skills with Smith's smarts and Elam's ability to deliver a big hit against the run. Unlike the two incumbents, Leonhard is also solid in coverage, playing faster and displaying more athleticism than one would surmise by looking at him.
Jim adds an additional dimension on special teams, where he did a fine job as a return man. A big punt return in the AFC Championship Game set up a Ravens touchdown and culminated a productive season as a return man. He posted an average of 11.6 yards per punt return. Now he will have the benefit of Mike Westhoff's blocking schemes. Leon Washington is one of the top return men in football. He will still see a lot of duty. However, the Jets would be wise to use him more on offense. Now if the team tries to limit his special teams touches to keep him fresh, Leonhard can step in. Any frustration over cutting Justin Miller, another quality return man who offered little at his natural position of corner, back in November should now disappear.
Leonhard fills a gaping hole at safety. His diverse skill set in the back of the defense will free the Jets to use Kerry Rhodes in the variety of ways the way Rex Ryan used Ed Reed in Baltimore. Rex Ryan is undoubtedly a major factor in the signing. The Jets would not have gone after him with such intensity unless the coach offered a glowing endorsement of the player and the way he fits the system. The irony is he is a perfect Eric Mangini player, an overachiever who made in the NFL more because of hard work and football smarts than God given ability. It took Rex Ryan, a coach perceived as a polar opposite, to land such a player.