One of the most common complaints Ravens fans make -- albeit mostly in retrospect -- is how foolish the Ravens were to let safety Jim Leonhard go as a free agent at the end of the 2008 season. Leonhard, who played well in Baltimore filling in for Dawan Landry, emerged as one of the better strong safeties in the league as a full-time starter with the Jets. He was especially good in the post season, forcing a fumble in New York's wild card victory over the Bengals and intercepting a pass in their divisional playoff win against San Diego. He also had a crushing hit on San Diego wide receiver Malcom Floyd, and dove for a loose ball on a play even though he'd lost his helmet during a hit.
Leonhard is only 5-foot-8 and barely tips the scales at 186 pounds, but Ryan knew in Baltimore Leonhard could be more than a special teams player, which is how most teams -- including the Bills who signed him as an undrafted free agent out of college -- viewed him.
"The first thing that got my attention is how smart he was," said Ryan, who was the Ravens defensive coordinator for three seasons before becoming the Jets head coach. "He to took our system just like that. I always liked Jim when he was in college, but we weren't able to get him."
When Leonhard signed with the Ravens, Ozzie Newsome told Ryan if he really wanted to keep Leonhard, he'd have to cut several other players because of how the salary cap was shaping up that year. Ryan mulled it over for a few minutes and asked Newsome to make it happen.
"Ozzie is a great judge of talent," Ryan said. "He said to me 'Rex, we'll keep this guy, but you've got to let three other guys go.' I'm a loyal guy, but I let those three guys go to keep Jim Leonhard. We'd drafted two safeties in Baltimore and had a couple of great safeties already there, but I don't think you can have enough good football players. We were smart."
Ryan looked even smarter when he recruited Leonhard to the Jets last year after Leonhard became a free agent.
"When free agency started, he was at the top of our list, and he did a great job for us this year," Ryan said.