Upbeat Leonhard keen on Buffalo

Former Wisconsin safety has an opportunity to play immediately on special teams for the Bills

The 2005 NFL Draft was over. Jim Leonhard, the University of Wisconsin's three-time All-American safety, was a free agent, having watched 255 picks pass off the board. So Leonhard's phone, which had been ringing with regularity since the middle of the sixth round, began to blare uncontrollably.

"I probably had about 40 phone calls in about an hour and a half," Leonhard said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. "It got pretty nuts."

The overwhelming majority of those calls were from three teams, Leonhard said: the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens. Each recruited him hard and continuously until he made his decision, signing a three-year contract with the Bills Sunday evening as an undrafted free agent.

"There was three or four guys from each team trying to get a hold of you and you couldn't get off the phone for 20 seconds before somebody else called," Leonhard said.

That part was "crazy" Leonhard said, but signing with Buffalo is a "great opportunity." He watched the draft in Madison with family and friends and will leave for Buffalo Thursday, in time for a mandatory three-day mini-camp, which begins Friday.

Before the elation could set in, however, Leonhard had to endure the draft.

"First of all it was real long," he said with a laugh.

Leonhard is happy now. But there were some unsettling feelings as the draft progressed. The Eagles, Ravens and Bills all called him during the sixth round and told him they were considering drafting him in the seventh.

"So it was kind of a frustrating process to see those picks go by and then not have my name called," Leonhard said.

Leonhard feels he has a good opportunity in Buffalo, where he will compete for playing time on special teams, potentially becoming the team's punt returner, and for a role as a reserve safety. The Bills only had three veteran safeties under contract — including former UW cornerback Troy Vincent — prior to the draft and they did not select one during the draft.

"They made it sound like I have a good opportunity there," Leonhard said.

After a standout college career, during which he set the Big Ten's all-time punt return yardage record (1,347) and tied UW's career interceptions record (21), Leonhard's 5-foot-8, 191-pound frame gave prospective NFL employers pause.

"I can put some weight on but I'm still going to be 5-8," he said. "That's going to be a knock on me for me as along as I play this game. I guess to me I wasn't really worried about that.

"If there was something else that they said about me that I could control I would have done all I could to improve that or to show that I've been improving that."

But not every player who was drafted Saturday and Sunday fit the ideal archetype for their position. What may have really held Leonhard back from being drafted was that he was not able to work out for NFL teams at the annual scouting combine, during UW's pro day or in any other pre-draft workouts.

Leonhard played the last half of his senior season with a stress fracture in his left foot, though the full extent of the injury was unknown until an MRI conducted after the Badgers' bowl game. So while he could have been showing off his athletic ability to assuage team's fears regarding his height, Leonhard was nursing himself back to health. He has been running for less than a month.

"I'd say it's about 90 percent right now," he said. "But it was, by the time it got good, for the most part these teams were in their meetings for the draft and they really couldn't get anyone out to see me work out."

Leonhard bench pressed 225 pounds 19 times at the combine and was credited with a 4.58 second 40-yard dash and a 36 ½ inch vertical jump, from previous campus workouts, on his official bio.

"There's a lot of teams, or a lot of people that those numbers, you know, the 40 times and all that stuff, that's huge," Leonhard said. "I didn't have a possibility to have any of that. So I'm sure it just really held me back."

And the painful truth is that if Leonhard had not persevered through his injury this season, when he had 443 punt return yards, 72 tackles, three interceptions and 10 pass breakups, which tied for a team high, he would have been healthy enough to perform for pro scouts this spring.

"It's frustrating, but that was the choice that I made," he said. "I felt like that was more important at the time. And, you know, it came back and got me in the end but I think everything is going to work out. And I definitely wouldn't trade in what I did."

Leonhard is used to being the underdog, having walked on with the Badgers four years ago after a standout prep career in tiny Tony, Wis.

"You have to go in and prove yourself one more time," he said. "The frustrating thing about this is it's been out of my hands for so long and now finally it's back in my hands where I can control kind of what happens from here on."

Completing his fourth year at the UW, Leonhard will have seven credits left to complete his bachelor's degree in kinesiology at the end of this semester. He plans on returning to UW next spring to finish his course work — after playing his first season in the NFL.

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