Fans of the Wisconsin Badgers of the early 2000s will remember one of the team's greatest success stories. A small walk-on from tiny Tony, Wisconsin burst onto the scene on special teams during the 2001 season, and took over as a starting free safety in 2002. He intercepted 11 passes that season and went on to record a total of 21 picks to go with a Big Ten-record 1,347 punt return yards.
That success story is that of Jim Leonhard, who has since made a living in the NFL as a tough, smart safety. In an interview with ESPN Wisconsin's Zach Heilprin, that same Jim Leonhard, who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2014, expressed interest in coming to Green Bay to join the Packers if they were to extend a contract offer to him.
I'd obviously love to come back to Green Bay and play for the hometown fans. That would make a lot of people happy, a lot of my family happy. They wouldn't be quite as conflicted having to cheer for some teams that they maybe rather wouldn't, but you never know. Obviously there's got to be mutual interest on both ends.
If he were to come to Green Bay, Leonhard would not necessarily be a starter out of the gate. In fact, he has not been a team's primary starter since he was a member of the New York Jets in 2011 - last year in Buffalo he started six games while Jairus Byrd was injured, and he started just one 2012 game in place of an injured Rahim Moore in Denver.
Leonhard tends to find his way onto the field on defense regardless of whether he starts, and this would make him a valuable rotational safety for Green Bay - especially if they decide to bring a new safety in through the draft and get him up to speed slowly. Leonhard has intercepted at least one pass in each of the past seven seasons, topping out with four a year ago for the Bills. He still is capable in coverage, and he has extensive experience in a 3-4 defense from his tenures with the Baltimore Ravens and the Jets.
At 5'8" and 188 pounds, Leonhard probably would be best used as a free safety where he does not need to provide a ton of help in run support. Defending the run was the best part of Morgan Burnett's game in 2013, though, so a solid coverage safety would help that unit.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Leonhard being a possibility for the Packers is that he would come cheaply. Leonhard played for the 2013 Bills on a one-year, veteran minimum deal, and would likely be in line for the same in 2014. Furthermore, signing free agents to league-minimum deals has a minimal impact on the following year's compensatory draft picks, especially given the number of Packers likely to depart in free agency, so Ted Thompson probably would not have to worry about losing extra picks in 2015 by signing Leonhard.
Considering that the Packers are his home team and that they could use some veteran leadership in the back half of the secondary, Leonhard makes all the sense in the world as the kind of free agent that Ted Thompson might pursue.
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