Safety Net: Rams foresee many uses for rookie Leonard
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Brian Leonard is proving to be a quick study. Less than two weeks after being drafted in the second round by the Rams, Leonard showed up Friday for rookie minicamp wearing a bright red Cardinals baseball cap. Welcome to St. Louis.
"I'll probably end up turning into a Cardinal fan," Leonard said. "I grew up in New York, so obviously I was a Yankees fan."
So who's his favorite Cardinal?
There was a long pause, and what seemed like a bit of panic. "Hmmm," Leonard said. "I could mention Yankees."
Then, finally, a name came to him. "Pujols," Leonard said.
Coach Scott Linehan hopes Leonard is similarly adept at picking up the Rams' offense. Because the quicker the Rutgers running back knows what he's doing, the more he'll be on the field early in the 2007 season.
"It's kind of up to his progress," Linehan said Saturday. "He's very smart. He's been playing his whole life. He understands the game. I don't think he had a mental error today, and he took every rep. Didn't miss one snap. It's a good start."
Leonard's touches last fall at Rutgers were cut back noticeably because he switched to fullback from tailback. But as Linehan joked, "He's getting 'em back today."
Leonard had no choice Saturday. Among the 32 players participating on the first day of the two-day minicamp, Leonard and rookie free agent Brad Lau were the only backs. And Lau plays fullback.
"I'm getting a lot of reps, and getting my hands on the ball," Leonard said. "Hopefully, the coaches like what they're seeing."
Obviously, the coaching staff and front office liked what they saw of Leonard at Rutgers or they wouldn't have chosen him 52nd overall. Now that Leonard is working in Earth City, Linehan has begun formulating how to maximize his versatility.
"We're open to wherever that takes us," Linehan said. "As a rookie, he's certainly going to be a big contributor on special teams. And he's going to have a big role in situations that require a big back with size. But he also has the ability to run and has the ability to catch."
Once the regular season starts, Linehan envisions this kind of workload for Leonard each Sunday:
— A few snaps at fullback as a lead blocker for Steven Jackson.
— A few snaps at running back, spelling Jackson.
— A few snaps as a third-down back.
— Perhaps a play or two in short yardage.
"Before it's all said and done, he's in the game for 15-20 snaps," Linehan said.
Make no mistake, Jackson will remain the workhorse.
"What we're trying to do is ... give Steven a little bit of a break without changing the emphasis of using him," Linehan said. "I have a hard time pulling Steven out of the game — ever — personally. But there's got to be times where we manage that."
Barring some late acquisition, Leonard will be the Rams' safety net. Should something happen to Jackson, Leonard must carry the load in the backfield. Given Jackson's 436 touches in '06, it's almost a minor miracle that he made it through the season unscathed.
But that's more exception than rule in the NFL. For example, in his final five seasons (2000-2004) as a Rams starter, Marshall Faulk missed 13 games because of injury and was limited in several others.
Leonard, who has yet to meet Jackson, has no illusions of grandeur. He knows it's Jackson's backfield.
"He's a heck of a running back," Leonard said. "What'd he have — 1,500 (rushing) yards last year; 800 yards receiving? That's amazing for an NFL back. I just hope I can help him out a little ... take some hits off him."
Besides his versatility, what should make Leonard a good fit in St. Louis is his unselfishness. There should be no clash of the egos; none of the underlying tension that characterized the Jackson-Faulk relationship.
At Rutgers, Leonard was the feature back for his first three seasons, compiling 2,352 rushing yards and catching 169 passes for 1,574 yards. Before his senior season, the school put up a video billboard in Times Square touting Leonard as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Leonard never saw it.
"New York City's only 30 minutes away from Rutgers — I never went down," Leonard said. "My friends would go down and look at it and stuff. I just didn't. I'm not an 'individual' kind of guy."
Leonard proved that was the case by agreeing to move to fullback as a senior. The Scarlet Knights had a special back — Ray Rice — waiting in the wings, and Leonard's position switch gave Rice a chance to shine last season. Although still productive, Leonard's touches were cut in half in '06.
"I didn't get as many carries, or as many catches, but this was the most satisfying year I've ever had at Rutgers just because we did so well," Leonard said. "When I came to Rutgers, we went 1-11, and then we finished 11-2 my senior year. We turned that program around completely."