Thursday, November 15, 2007
By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

There comes a point in every football player’s life where it dawns on him that the end is near. Training camp, the preseason, and the opening of the regular season have passed and he is without a job.

At that point, it generally begins to register that maybe it’s time to pursue another line of work. As legendary Ram, Paul (Tank) Younger, in his capacity as the training camp Turk, would say, “Son, it’s time for you to get on with your life‘s work.” For Nick Leckey, the point of no return seemed to draw near this offseason when the regular season opener came and went and he had no team to call his own.

“It’s a step closer but you always know in the back of your head this is not forever, tomorrow is not guaranteed,” Leckey said. “I think most players, there’s only a small percentage of players in this league who are guaranteed in their spot, but for me it’s always in the back of my mind like I am here today and tomorrow is not guaranteed.”

It was also no guarantee that the Rams’ offensive line would be hit with the injury plague again and again. There was no way of knowing that Orlando Pace’s shoulder would suddenly give out or Mark Setterstrom’s knee would tear at the seams.

But in the course of those events, injury creates opportunity. For a guy like Leckey, that’s all he needs.

Leckey started at right guard last week against New Orleans after filling in at the position the previous game when Richie Incognito suffered a kneecap injury.

It was a long, strange journey back into a starting lineup, but Leckey – who had limited guard experience – performed beyond expectations. He was a key part of an offensive line that paved the way for one of the team’s best offensive performances of the season.

And he performed well enough to stake a claim to a starting job on a more permanent basis. It's almost certain that Leckey will start again this week at right guard.

“It shows that he’s played and competed in a lot of games whether he has the right physical characteristics to play that position, he has the right mindset and competitive spirit,” coach Scott Linehan said. “He showed where we’re trying to get as far as, regardless if you are counted on to be the starter or backup or fill-in, whoever goes in has to play well enough for us to win. He came in at a tough spot against Cleveland and took a lot of accountability on his shoulders for us not doing as good as we wanted to do. He went out and played very, very well the next game. It’s a great example of what we’re trying to get done.”

What Leckey is trying to get done is to make the adjustment to guard after spending almost his entire career as a center. In his fourth year out of Kansas State, Leckey’s start at guard against New Orleans was the first of his career at a position other than center.

Leckey isn’t exactly without experience at guard, though. When he got to Kansas State he was a guard and he stayed there until his senior season. Leckey started 41 consecutive games for the Wildcats and did not allow a sack in any game he started.

As he prepared to make the adjustment to the NFL, it became clear that his future at the position was in the middle.

Arizona used a sixth-round draft choice, No, 167 overall, on Leckey in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Leckey spent his first season working exclusively on special teams before playing in 14 games with nine starts in 2005. Last season Leckey took the starting position in week 6 and played in 14 games with 11 starts.

With a new coach in the fold, Arizona parted ways with Leckey, claiming he was too small to hold up on the interior. Leckey assumed he would land another job. But the call didn’t come until Oct. 6, almost five weeks into the season.

“Whenever you are on the streets it’s a weird feeling because it feels like the offseason but the NFL season is going on,” Leckey said. “It’s tough for me back when I was in Arizona just watching games on TV, I couldn’t do it. I had to stay in shape, realize where I’m at and once I came here I was fortunate and these guys wanted me here so I am going to perform my best for these guys here.”

Leckey originally signed with the idea he could be a backup at center and play guard in a pinch. But with the way the injuries shook out, Leckey was the only true interior player available when Incognito was hurt, meaning the Rams had little choice but to plug him in against the Browns.

By his own admission, Leckey didn’t have his best game against Cleveland. The Rams coaching staff has a fine system for players on the offensive line. Mistakes such as pre-snap penalties and blown assignments can cost linemen money.

Leckey said he owed some after that game, but it didn’t deter him from wanting to get back at it over the bye week and for the game against New Orleans.

At 6’2, 293 pounds, Leckey certainly doesn’t look the part of a typical guard or really any football player for that matter.

“I am bigger than him,” running back Steven Jackson said, laughing. “Last week I asked him how much he weighed and he said 290 I believe. If he’s 295, I don’t even want to know how much I weigh.”

Leckey knows he isn’t the biggest guy in the world but says he has enough “lead in his (rear)” to handle himself against bigger defensive tackles. He fared well against massive New Orleans tackle Hollis Thomas despite being outweighed by about 60 pounds.

Linehan attributes that to Leckey’s feisty disposition.

“He has that mentality that regardless of how big he is or how big you want your guards and centers to be, he just has that extra part of the game you need to be a winner,” Linehan said. “That’s why he’s survived and made it in this league.”

Leckey’s stint at right guard could extend beyond this week, but for someone who didn’t have a job the first month of the season, he isn’t concerned much with any of that.

“I think that’s one of those things I can control,” Leckey said. “How feisty I am or how much I move around and stay on my guy, that’s something I can control so that’s what I am going to try and do.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Leckey isn’t alone in his position as street free agent turned starter. The Rams have given extensive playing time to Milford Brown, Brandon Gorin and Rob Petitti, all of whom were on the street at the beginning of the season.

Perhaps it’s that mindset that helped the offensive line have one of its best performances of the season. Most of the group has nothing to lose and is playing hungry. Whether that continues remains to be seen, but it’s a start.

“We’ve looked at a lot of linemen,” Linehan said. “We’ve scoured the entire league. That’s going to be a positive down the road. You have to look at it like, ‘here’s a young player with a lot of upside.’ Down the road, you look at a guy like that who is going to be competing for a roster spot, even a starting spot one day. You never know. You have to accumulate those kinds of players so you have those options.”