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Waiting game over, Towson wide receiver Shane Leatherbury relishing chance to join Cardinals

Shane Leatherbury carries the ball against North Carolina Central for Towson.
Shane Leatherbury carries the ball against North Carolina Central for Towson. (ENP Photography)

When the 2020 NFL draft ended shortly after 6 p.m. on Saturday, Shane Leatherbury could not stop moving and was admittedly anxious.

“I was so hyped,” the Towson wide receiver said Sunday. “As soon as the draft is over, you’re just waiting and staring at your phone. I texted my agent [Martin Magid] right after, ‘All right, two minutes have gone by. How long is this going to take?’ You’re so anxious, and you have no clue. I could be watching my phone still right now.”

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Leatherbury’s nerves did not last long. About 30 minutes after the draft’s conclusion, Magid called Leatherbury to inform him that the Arizona Cardinals had offered him an undrafted rookie contract, and the Salisbury resident promptly accepted.

He will join a potentially explosive offense headlined by wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and DeAndre Hopkins, quarterback Kyler Murray and running back Kenyan Drake.

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“I barely slept last night,” Leatherbury, 22, said. “It’s just surreal. It’s like having a dream and then it comes true.”

Tigers coach Rob Ambrose said when he spoke to Leatherbury shortly after he agreed with Arizona, Leatherbury was as excited as a child “in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory because he had earned the golden ticket.”

“You can ask any player on our team, but there’s not one guy in the last two years whose offseason workouts were anywhere near Shane’s,” Ambrose said. “He crushed everyone, and the gains that he made were ridiculous. I’ve never seen anyone more committed, and it paid off.”

Leatherbury wrapped up a decorated three-year career with the Tigers, becoming a two-time All-Colonial Athletic Association wideout, including a first-team selection in 2018. He is tied for third in program history in touchdown catches (21) and ranks eighth in receptions (149) and yards (1,848). His 67 catches in 2018 are the third-highest total in a single season, and his 12 receiving touchdowns in 2019 are tied for first in a single season.

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Leatherbury, who transferred from Seton Hill College, said he appreciated the second chance to revive his career at Towson, which included him catching passes from quarterback Tom Flacco, younger brother of former Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

“I just knew my role and did my job,” he said. “When the ball came my way, I tried to make plays, and when the ball was in other people’s hands, I tried to help them make plays. I was surrounded by a good group of dudes, and Tom always made it easy on me. It opens up things pretty well when you’ve got a lot of athletes around you.”

As impressive as his numbers were, Leatherbury was realistic about his draft chances.

“It’s not like I expected to be a big pick,” he said. “I was just hoping for a call afterward, and I knew I would have to make the most of it. Now it’s a level playing field. So I’ve just got to prove why I’m there and give them a reason to stay.”

At 5 feet, 11 inches and 190 pounds, Leatherbury appears to be well-suited for the slot receiver role on offense, but wide receivers coach Justin Harper said that he never hesitated to have Leatherbury run routes over the middle and in traffic.

“He’s a strong-bodied kid,” said Harper, a former Ravens wide receiver who was selected in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. “And when you say smaller, he’s still a 5-11 wideout. He can be very compact with how he uses his body. But he plays big. There are some clips where he goes up and he goes and gets the ball. He’s that much of an athlete. I don’t see him being small hindering him. and he can run. I’m glad for him because a team like Arizona that is going to spread the ball around, he’s going to get an ample amount of opportunities in practice to show that he can do his thing.”

Leatherbury said that he had offers from both the Cardinals and Ravens, but thought Arizona was a better fit.

“It was definitely difficult,” he said of the decision. “With either one of them, I wasn’t going to be mad. I was pretty much picking between the best of the best, and either way, it was going to be a dream come true. So as long as I get to step onto the field again, I really didn’t mind. But I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I could play and make the roster.”

Leatherbury will be competing with a trio of 2019 draft picks in Baltimore native Hakeem Butler (fourth round), Andy Isabella (second round) and KeeSean Johnson (sixth round) to join Fitzgerald, Hopkins and Christian Kirk on the active roster.

Leatherbury was especially enthusiastic about learning from Fitzgerald, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection who ranks second in NFL history in career receptions and receiving yards, and Hopkins, a four-time Pro Bowler who was acquired from the Houston Texans on March 20.

“I get to play with two of the best to ever play the game – a Hall of Famer and another guy at the top of his game,” he said. “I’m just excited to get to pick their brains. I just hope that I don’t annoy them too much, but I’m going to try to learn as much as I can from them and soak up as much information as I can.”

Leatherbury’s status as a rookie free agent reminds Harper of Jameel McClain, a 2008 classmate with the Ravens who turned getting undrafted into a six-year career complementing middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

“If you think about it, if you’re not a first-round, second-round, third-round and maybe even fourth-round guy, everybody has an uphill climb,” he said. “So once you get in that door, it’s all about what you do. So I wouldn’t necessarily tell a kid that he has an uphill climb. I would tell him that he has an opportunity to go in there and prove himself.”

The odds might be steep for Leatherbury, but he promised to do his best to make a lasting impression.

“I’m going to put my best foot forward every day,” he said. “I just know that I’m going to keep improving every day because I have a lot of potential. I’m just ready to get to work with a good attitude every day.”

Ambrose predicted that Leatherbury would fortify the Cardinals’ receiving corps.

“I think he’s going to add playmaking ability and speed to a polished group of receivers, and he’s going to bring relentlessness,” he said. “I guarantee you that he’s going to make the people around him better. He’s going to work as hard as he physically can to be as good as he can be, and when you surround yourself with people like that, good things happen.”

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