Going free, Leonhard not cheap

The Baltimore Sun

Change is coming to the Ravens' indomitable defense.

Rex Ryan, the architect/coordinator, is already gone. Cornerback Chris McAlister has one foot out the door. Pro Bowl linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are lined up for big paychecks.

Then there's play-making safety Jim Leonhard, one of the unsung heroes of that defense, whose future in Baltimore is cloaked in salary cap intrigue.

If the Ravens are able to sign Lewis and Suggs, will they have enough money left to reward Leonhard for his stellar season?

Or, faced with a lesser offer, might Leonhard bolt for the New York Jets and a reunion with Ryan?

After three nondescript years with the Buffalo Bills, Leonhard found a home in the Ravens' secondary this season. When Dawan Landry suffered a spinal cord concussion in September and eventually went on injured reserve, Leonhard became the starting strong safety.

He never missed a step, through 16 starts, including three playoff games.

As the season wore on, Leonhard proved his worth in more ways than as a safety. He was the team's best punt returner, averaging 11.6 yards, nearly twice that of Yamon Figurs. He returned kickoffs on occasion (averaging 20.4 yards). And when the need arose - as it did in the AFC title game, when the Ravens were short on cornerbacks - Leonhard played nickel back, too.

Versatile, tough, quick, smart. He made a career-high 85 tackles in the regular season and played well in the playoffs (one interception, half a sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and 16 tackles). Not a bad resume to take into free agency Feb. 27.

Leonhard, 26, signed a one-year contract for $520,000 in April after he aced a weekend minicamp tryout with the Ravens. That contract is up, and for the first time in his pro career, he has options.

"I had a great season," he said Monday before players scattered across the country. "I was put in position to make plays, and fortunate enough to make a lot of them. I've spoken all season of how I love this system and this defense."

Defensive tackle Trevor Pryce calls him "Little Jimmy Leonhard" out of respect for the 5-foot-8 safety with a boyish face.

"You like players like that because they don't get a lot of publicity," Pryce said. "But those are always the best ones. Jimmy is a damn good football player. People are just starting to notice now, but we knew that a long time ago."

As much as he would like to stay, Leonhard knows there's a chance he might have to go. It's obvious the Ravens' biggest priority on defense will be keeping Lewis and Suggs, and perhaps fellow linebacker Bart Scott. Contracts for Lewis and Suggs, franchise tag or not, will be very expensive.

"These guys are tremendous game changers on the team and in the league," Leonhard said. "I don't know what the front office thinks, but in my mind, they're priority guys, and that will determine what happens ... to the rest of the free agents."

While the Ravens almost certainly will want to keep Leonhard, paying him may become the issue. They still don't know how soon or how well Landry will come back from his injury. He has yet to be cleared by a doctor for any contact. But they did draft two promising safeties in April in Tom Zbikowski (third round) and Haruki Nakamura (sixth round).

In salary cap economics, this gives the Ravens leverage, too.

And don't discount the Ryan factor. The departed coordinator likes Leonhard a lot. He wanted the Ravens to sign him out of Wisconsin as an undrafted free agent in 2005. He might get that chance now as coach of the Jets.

Leonhard also appreciates the fact that Ryan knew how best to use him.

"I would love to play for Rex again," Leonhard said. "Obviously, I have a lot of respect for him, as well as the coaches that are still here. If that opportunity comes up, who knows what will happen? I'm going to enjoy this season for a little bit, then let everything work itself out the next couple months."

And if Leonhard hits the free-agent market, how long would it take before he calls Ryan?

"Probably not long," he said.

Who replaces Ryan as coordinator is another factor in his decision. The Ravens presumably would like to stay in-house for reasons of continuity.

"You ask anyone on defense and they'd like it to stay in-house," Leonhard said, "just because we have that bond with them already. But that's not to say there's not somebody else on the outside that's the right person for the job. [The Ravens] have a great track record with coaches, and they'll bring in the right guy. Nobody's worried about that."

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