Jim Leonhard is an underdog. He is short at 5'8". He also weighs under 200 pounds, coming in at a lean 190. He is just one of a handful of safeties in the NFL who is Caucasian. Eric Weddle, Craig Steltz, and Todd Johnson are the only other ones that come to mind.
The biggest hurdle that Leonhard has to overcome this season is last year's season-ending injury and subsequent surgery that ended his career with the New York Jets.
Leonhard is an enigma in today's NFL, a league that is always moving towards bigger, faster DBs who can cover more ground, jump higher and make big-play tackles on players out in the open.
This past week, the Denver Broncos activated Leonhard from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List eight months after the injury that tabled his 2011 season.
Recently, Leonhard was quoted by FoxSports.com about his new surroundings in Denver and the chance to play in the NFL again.
"It feels better than it did before I hurt it," said Leonhard.
"Coming back from an injury, you just want to prove yourself, and I haven't been able to do that up to this point. It just feels good to finally get back out on the field. I put a lot of time into this rehab. It was a tough one, and I've put in the work. And now it's time to get back on the field and hopefully make some plays."
Proving himself has been something Leonhard has had to do consistently throughout his eight seasons in the NFL. Leonhard broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with the Buffalo Bills. He earned a roster spot with the Bills and proved to be a valuable asset in the secondary. In college at Wisconsin, Leonhard earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times in his collegiate career.
He has consistently proven himself in the NFL as well. Prior to his injury in Week 13 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Leonhard racked up 48 total tackles, had a run stop for a loss, an interception and six passes defended.
His veteran presence will be a calming force for the Broncos' young secondary. His presence will complement the defense's unquestioned captain, Champ Bailey. Late in the 2011 season when injuries and inexperience wreaked havoc on a tenuous set-up at safety with rookies Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore, there was no one to turn to or to rely on when things got tough. In 2012, the Broncos will have Leonhard and Mike Adams, experienced, invaluable players who will hold up the defense late in the season.
One of the most valuable assets any football player has is his desire. Leonhard, despite his eight seasons in the NFL, still wants to prove himself not only to the Broncos, who rolled the dice on his recovery but to Leonhard himself, who wants to go out there and prove the doubters wrong.
''You really can only show so much until you get on the field,'' Leonhard said. ''Obviously, they've liked what I've done in the past and I proved that my knee was good enough to bring me in, but you're still sitting on the sideline and watching and that's not a very good place to be when you're trying to prove yourself.''
Leonhard relishes the opportunity and sees the possibilities if himself and others are back at 100 percent on defense. The team has had lots of changes on the defensive side of the ball, and if they come together as a full unit, they should turn heads in 2012.
''We could be a great defense, we really could, and that's what gets me excited,'' Leonhard said. ''Sitting on the side and seeing guys make plays, that's the frustrating part. You're excited to get back out there and do it with them.''
Not only will Leonhard be a boost to the team in the secondary, but he will also help in returning punts, an area that still remains up in the air for the 2012 season. Right now, only rookie Omar Bolden and Eric Decker (who figures to be held out of special teams this season) have much experience returning punts. The other player in the mix to help in punt returns could be the player Leonhard beats out this preseason, third-year player Syd'Quan Thompson, who was injured last preseason.
Leonhard faces an uphill battle to make the team's 53-man roster with a crowded list of free safeties including Rahim Moore, Rafael Bush (a special teams specialist), and Anthony Perkins (an undrafted rookie free agent).