Ed Thompson: Before we get talking about football, I heard you were in a big golf event early this week.
Jim Leonhard: Yeah, I got invited by Jay Feely, he’s the big golfer on the team. Somehow we got hooked up through the Jets to play in the Eric Trump Foundation Golf Invitational. It benefits St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. We were a little out of our league, but we're decent golfers, so we held our own on the golf course.
Thompson: Are you a frequent golfer?
Leonhard: I love golf. Obviously, I don’t go often enough during the season, but during the offseason I definitely enjoy it.
Thompson: I've really enjoyed following your career. I think the last time we talked you were still finishing up your final year in Buffalo. You went from being an undrafted rookie in Buffalo to playing for Baltimore, and now for the Jets. As you look back on that path, in what ways have you developed as a player since leaving the Bills organization?
Leonhard: I think the biggest thing is getting that opportunity in Baltimore last year. I learned so much from the coaches and from the players that it just rejuvenated my career--and mentally how I was feeling about football. To play with guys that are that talented, that care so much about each other and about winning, it was a lot of fun. And obviously, going that deep in the playoffs doesn’t hurt either. Everyone is happy when you're winning and I got to meet some great people last year. And now, it’s coming to New York as someone that was wanted. That was really the first time in my NFL career that I was being pursued by a team. It gave me a lot of confidence going into this year.
Thompson: I’ll bet it did. You posted a career-high 69 tackles last year and you showed your skills as a playmaker during the playoffs with an interception, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries. But one thing that’s really a bit of an oddity about you is that you have all this productivity at the safety position, and yet you still go out there and put yourself in harm’s way as a punt returner. How much of that is your desire to play both positions versus the team just seeing your skill and saying we need you out there returning punts as well?
Leonhard had a breakout season in Baltimore in 2008.
Getty Images/Chris McGrath
Leonhard: I think that’s just part of my role. I’m not at the point in my career yet to where I’m strictly a defensive player. My role is still going to be on special teams in some aspects, and I’m glad it’s returning punts rather than running down on kickoffs. I really enjoy returning punts. It’s something I feel I have a knack for and I realize how helpful it can be for the team.
Thompson: Talk about that a little bit, though. Because I think that as a punt returner, you're one of the most vulnerable people out on that football field--staring up there at the sky, waiting for the ball to come down as you hear those footsteps thundering toward you. It takes a different kind of person to be able to handle that pressure.
Leonhard: You definitely have to have a different attitude, and you have to have a feel for it. Obviously, there aren’t that many great ones that play today. There are a lot of really great athletes in this league, but it takes a certain feel and a certain mindset to return punts--because it is a little nuts (laughs). You are very vulnerable. But for some reason I’m crazy enough to enjoy it, I really do like doing it.
Thompson: Let’s talk a little bit about your head coach, Rex Ryan, and your relationship with him since you talked about how you were pursued by the Jets this year. You must have formed a pretty special bond with him during your time in Baltimore for him to come after you the way that he did during the offseason.
Leonhard: I think he was one of the main guys responsible for changing the way that I felt about football last year--seeing a guy that was as well-liked of a coach as him. Most coaches distance themselves from players, and they kind of make it seem like they are above the players, but Rex makes it feel like he's truly one of the guys. He's going to coach the hell out of you, and you’re going to get done everything you want to do. But he actually cares about his players, he actually enjoys being around his players, and his entire staff is the same way. You always think that coaches believe they can't get too close to the players because then there’s not enough discipline and there’s not enough fear in the players. And to see a guy do it the way Rex does--which I feel is the right way--and have success, it makes you want to go play for a guy like that. Obviously, this offseason, that was huge in my decision to come to New York, just knowing that that guy coaches the right way. I think everyone in New York is buying into that as well. You saw that just in one game--the passion, the energy that we played with last week. And that comes straight from the top.
Thompson: When I was at the NFL Combine this year and Rex did his press conference, one of the things that really popped out at me was when he said, “Plays like a Jet, that’s going to mean something this year in New York.” From a player's point of view, what does that phrase mean to you?
Rex Ryan has inspired Leonhard to take his game to a higher level.
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Leonhard: I think the main thing he tried to get across is just playing with passion. If you really enjoy the game of football, you're going to go out there and play it the right way, and I think that’s where it all starts. You saw that with Baltimore. You always talked for years about how hard they play, that they actually look like they care about each other, they actually look like they want to win for each other. I think that’s where it starts, with a certain level of competitiveness that you don’t always see players have. He demands that. He won’t coach effort, it’s not going to happen. If he has to coach effort, you’re not going to be there. Schematically, they develop a scheme--one, that players like, and two, that will put you in position to make a lot of plays and have a lot of success. If you’re a player that doesn’t want to play for coaches like he has, and in the scheme that we have, you probably don’t belong in the NFL. I think that’s kind of what “Playing like a Jet” really comes down to.
Thompson: Outstanding explanation, Jim. I think you really hit the heart of it. Talk a little bit about Rex’s transition over there. Did he bring enough of the Raven’s approach, playbook and defensive scheme to the Jets so that it was pretty much a lateral move for you so you didn’t have to learn a whole lot new in the playbook this year?
Leonhard: The majority of things that we're doing have been things that we did in Baltimore. Obviously, in his position, he can throw out some of the things he didn’t like or that were confusing. He and the coaches can tweak some things. Any changes that we did make were for the better. Rex has talked about it. It was an easy decision for him to come to New York because you look at all the talent that’s on the defense and the team in general. Especially on the defense, it’s not like you have to take more out of the game plan or not really give the players as much, because you look across the board and there is so much talent on this defense. We feel like we can be successful starting right out of the gate.
Thompson: In addition to the talent you and a guy like Bart Scott bring to the field, did you also get the sense that the addition of the two of you was a way to help transition the rest of the Jets defense top Rex's scheme? In other words, that you could help the others along because you guys already had this down pat?
Leonhard: It was definitely part of it. He sat both of us down and talked about it. Both Rex and Coach Pettine sat both of us down at different times and said “You have to be our coaches this offseason. We only have so much time that we can be with you guys and solve things. You kind of have to take that leadership role.” I think we both handled that very well, and it’s a role that we both wanted. I haven’t had that since college, so I really looked forward to it and enjoyed this offseason. Bart was in the shadows a little bit in Baltimore. Obviously, he got a lot of recognition playing behind one of the best linebackers to ever play the game--you don’t get quite the credit that you probably deserve. They also brought in Marques Douglas up front, so we had a guy at each level that really could try to sell what Rex was trying to preach. I think we did a good job, and guys bought-in really early. And that’s why we’re able to have success right now.
Thompson: I’ve talked to safeties around the league, and some of those players say the strong safety position isn’t all that dramatically different than what’s expected from the free safety on their team. What about in this Jets defense? Is your role similar or dramatically different than that of the free safety?
Leonhard: It depends. It can be dramatically different, but I think the best thing that they do in this system is they force you to learn both. They don’t specify one player as a strong or free safety. They let you basically work it out with the other safety that you’re playing with, which for me right now is Kerry Rhodes. It makes it very unpredictable. An offense can’t look at a safety and say, "well, this guy is going to be in the box, or this guy, he’s going to do more of their coverage." They really have no idea, and I think we’ve done a great job with that this offseason. It helps in your understanding of the defense when you learn what everyone is supposed to do rather than just your individual position. In this defense, they’ve definitely put a lot on the safeties. You’re put in position to make plays all the time, and you saw that in Baltimore with Ed Reed.
Thompson: Absolutely. Tell me about Kerry Rhodes and the chemistry you guys are developing. What is it that you see in his game that you admire?
Leonhard took on a leadership role to help his teammates transition to a new defense.
Getty Images/Jim McIsaac
Leonhard: I think the biggest thing when you watch him, you can’t hide the fact that he is so extremely talented--just the range that he has and his ability to make plays. There aren't many safeties that can do that. I think the biggest thing is seeing that he's putting in the work. He's really trying to learn this defense. He understands the potential as a team and also for himself. He's really looking to kind of break out this year and get that recognition across the league, I think. He would never say that, but I think you can see it in the way that he has attacked this offseason and tried to learn everything.
Thompson: Jim, last week against Houston--a team that has a lot of offensive firepower--why do you think your defense matched up so well against them?
Leonhard: I think it all started up front. They really didn’t block us very often up front, and it allowed us to kind of do whatever we wanted as a secondary and with the linebackers. The other side of it is just the pressure we were putting on Matt Schaub. There aren't too many quarterbacks that can handle that for an entire game. The third part of it, offensively we put pressure on them. We got ahead and we never let up. We pounded them a little bit when we were on offense and put them in a hole. It’s hard to come from behind in this league, especially if you’re facing a defense with the caliber we think we have. But it definitely starts up front. You get guys going like Kris Jenkins, Bryan Thomas had a great game, Bart Scott, David Harris--who I believe was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week--and he’s the fourth guy I talked about (laughs). We did a great job up there, and it allowed us to do whatever we wanted on the back end to confuse them.
Thompson: This weekend, your first regular season game at home as a Jet, you’ve got New England coming to town. It doesn’t get any bigger than that, does it?
Leonhard: You have to love playing divisional games, especially rivalry games like this, early in the season when you're feeling good and you’re not beat up yet. It means a lot. Rex always talks about divisional games like this one because they’re really worth about a game-and-a-half as far as tie-breakers and playoffs--not that you look that far ahead now, but they do mean a little bit more. To go against Tom Brady--who’s making his comeback and is trying to prove to the entire league and to a lot of fans and doubters that he is 100 percent back--you have to like that challenge. And we’re going to give him everything we have.
Thompson: The Jets players who have been there for a few years are familiar with Brady, and you have seen plenty of him from your days with the Bills. What can you possibly do to try to slow down a guy like Tom Brady?
Leonhard: I think you have try as hard as you can to confuse him, or at least give him different looks. A quarterback of that talent, if he knows the coverages, if he knows what you're giving him, you're in trouble. He’ll just sit back there and pick you apart. Just like any quarterback, you've got to try to put him on his back a few times, get him a little gun-shy or get him to speed some throws up. Because if he can sit back in that pocket, he's going to cause a lot of trouble for you.
Thompson: Let’s talk about your quarterback now, Mark Sanchez. He’s a guy coming out of college that I spotted as a guy that’s got the spunk, he's got the confidence, he’s got that "just go out and play" type of attitude that I thought was going to serve him well in the NFL. What have you noticed about Mark and about how quickly he's jumped into this role as your starting quarterback?
Leonhard: I think like you said, from day one you could tell he had a presence about him. There's something about him that not everyone has, and he’s really done a great job of learning this offense. You could see that in the confidence he played with last week. He played with that confidence the entire offseason and training camp. We’re looking forward to big things--obviously, we know there are going to be ups and downs, and he is going to hit some speed bumps--but that’s where we feel like defensively we can bail him out. We feel like he can rely on us, he can put things on our shoulders rather than really trying to go out there and win games on offense.
Follow Ed Thompson on Twitter
Click here for more coverage of your favorite NFL team.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com.