Viewed as the Packers’ preferred defensive coordinator candidate in 2021, Jim Leonhard instead stayed on as DC at Wisconsin. With the Badgers making changes following the 2022 season, Leonhard left his longtime post. He is now expected to try his hand in the NFL.
The former NFL safety is on track to return to Denver. A Broncos backup in 2012, Leonhard is expected to become part of Sean Payton‘s second Broncos staff, ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler indicate. While Leonhard played 10 NFL seasons, he has only coached in the college game. Leonhard, 41, is set to replace Christian Parker as the Broncos’ DBs coach, per the Denver Gazette’s Chris Tomasson. The team has since announced the hire with the additional title of pass game coordinator.
As the NIL ruling and transfer portal warp an unsteady college landscape, a few college staffers have made the jump to the pros. Leonhard becomes the latest. While he does not register on the level of Jim Harbaugh or former Boston College HC (and new Packers DC) Jeff Hafley, he was in place as Wisconsin’s DC for six seasons. The Badgers fared well defensively under Leonhard, ranking in the top 25 nationally in all but one of his seasons. Wisconsin deployed four top-10 scoring defenses in that span.
This garnered Leonhard interest from college programs, and ESPN.com indicates he spoke with multiple NFL teams this offseason. Leonhard spent the 2023 season as an analyst at Illinois. The Eagles interviewed Leonhard for their DC job last year.
Leonhard has a past with both the Broncos and Payton. While his career featured better moments, Leonhard signed with the Broncos in 2012 and was part of a 13-3 team. The Broncos used Leonhard as a part-time punt returner, protecting the fumble-prone Trindon Holliday in certain situations, but used the veteran on 260 defensive snaps that year. Also playing for the Bills, Ravens and Browns, Leonhard is best known for his Jets tenure. The 2005 UDFA started 40 games for the Jets during Rex Ryan‘s stay. Leonhard spent the 2013 offseason with Payton in New Orleans but did not make the Saints’ 53-man roster.
The Broncos held Parker in high regard, keeping the Vic Fangio-hired assistant in place on Nathaniel Hackett and Payton’s staffs. Parker interviewed for Denver’s DC job last year and met with the Packers and Patriots about their positions last month. Leonhard was not believed to be in the mix for the Green Bay job this time around, but Matt LaFleur placed him as the top choice in 2021. Parker committed to rejoin Fangio in Philadelphia recently; he will be the Eagles’ defensive pass-game coordinator.