"We were very close to having everything signed, sealed and delivered out to New York, when all of a sudden, the Denver Broncos came out of nowhere and threw out a really big number at me," the Jets' new safety said Wednesday. "So, I took a few hours to consider it, and we ultimately decided that regardless of the money situation, the Jets were the place to be."
Leonhard, 26, signed a three-year deal with the Jets on Tuesday, and while financial terms weren't announced, it's believed to be worth around $2 million per year. Denver's offer was significantly better, and Leonhard acknowledged that he left quite a bit of money on the table.
"Yes, I did, and I'm OK with that situation," Leonhard said. "I think I made the right decision to be here."
Leonhard joined linebacker Bart Scott as ex-Baltimore players who joined Ryan in New York. The move didn't make nearly the type of headlines that Scott's signing did because Leonhard is still hardly a household name. In fact, he was introduced as "Jim Leon-hard" by the conference call operator, but the safety didn't even bother to correct them. The 5-foot-8 Leonhard is used to being overlooked and embraces the underdog persona.
"Everyone has that chip, and with the underdog role and being undersized, everyone telling me that you can't do something, I've dealt with that my whole life," he said. "I do like to prove those people wrong. It's definitely something that drives me, but it's not the only thing that drives me. I've never had a lack of confidence in my ability."
Leonhard received no scholarship offers from Division I schools and walked on to the team at Wisconsin, signed with Buffalo in 2005 as an undrafted free agent and was allowed to walk away from the Bills and sign with the Ravens last offseason. Even after this season, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome made it clear it was unlikely the team would re-sign him because of Baltimore's depth at the position.
"I knew they weren't going to make that big of a push for me, and, in the end, they really didn't offer," Leonhard said. "I really didn't have any opportunity to go back."
With the Jets, Leonhard is expected to step in as a starter opposite Kerry Rhodes. Leonhard said his role with the Ravens was to "allow Ed Reed to be Ed Reed and do whatever it took to put him in position to have the most success he could have." He hopes to do the same for Rhodes, another playmaking safety with the ability to change games with big plays.
"He has a lot of talent," Leonhard said. "I think this system will allow him to grow as a safety. He's already had a lot of success. This will take him to a new level, and I hope to be part of that."
Leonhard made 13 starts for the NFL's second-ranked defense last season when Dawan Landry was injured. He was particularly impressive during Baltimore's run to the AFC Championship Game when he had 16 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries during the playoffs.
"Yes, at times, I had to sacrifice and do the dirty work, but that was my role," Leonhard said. "I look forward to having that role here."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press