Ex-Bills Safety Lands Coaching Job With Sean Payton in Denver

Jim Leonhard

Getty Coach Jim Leonhard looks on during a Wisconsin game.

Former Buffalo Bills defensive back Jim Leonhard is working his way up the NFL coaching ranks, landing a job on Sean Payton’s staff in Denver after a successful stint at the college level.

ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported on February 11 that Leonhard was hired by the Broncos, marking a fast rise for the 41-year-old coach.

A little pregame non-Super Bowl news: Sources tell me and @JFowlerESPN that Jim Leonhard is expected to join the Denver Broncos’ staff to coach the secondary.” Graziano wrote on X. “Leonhard is a former NFL DB who’s well regarded in coaching circles and has been talking to several NFL and college teams”

Jim Leonhard Rising Up the Ranks

As Pro Football Talk reported, Leonhard had spent the last seven years in the college ranks starting with a five-year stint as defensive coordinator for the University of Wisconsin. Leonhard ended his time there as interim head coach, then worked as a defensive analyst at Illinois for the 2023 season.

Leonhard had gotten interest from the NFL before, turning down a job as the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator in 2021 and then interviewing with the Philadelphia Eagles in February 2023 for their defensive coordinator opening.

Some close to Leonhard expected him to get an NFL job in this hiring cycle. Illinois coach Bret Bielema predicted that he would only return to his college job if an NFL team didn’t scoop him up first.

“He and I have had a million conversations, not about the job, Jimmy’s just a guy I like to bounce things off of and where it’s at,” Bielema told reporters on February 7, via the Denver Post. “I don’t want to get into his business, but I think this: If he doesn’t have the things he wants at a different level than our level — not college — I think we’ll be back at it.”

Jim Leonhard’s Tenure in Buffalo

After a four-year career at Wisconsin, Leonhard broke into the NFL in 2005 as an undrafted rookie with the Bills. He was the only undrafted rookie to make the final 53-man roster that season, appearing in five games and making 10 total tackles.

Leonhard spent the next two seasons in Buffalo, appearing in 28 more games, before bouncing around the league for the next seven seasons. He returned to Buffalo in 2013, having one of his best seasons with the league with 41 total tackles and a career-high four interceptions.

Leonhard joins several other former Bills players in high-profile coaching positions across the league. Former quarterback Frank Reich served as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, but was fired in November after a 1-10 start. Another former Bills quarterback, Alex Van Pelt, was also named offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.

After Van Pelt landed the job, legendary Bills quarterback Jim Kelly congratulated his former backup and said he forgave him for joining their divisional rival.

“We were going to have dinner, but he got a call from the (Las Vegas) Raiders to go out there for an interview,” Kelly told ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “Then I found out where he landed, the Patriots and I was like, ‘Come on, man!”

“That was almost like when Thurman (Thomas) went to the Dolphins and I said to him, ‘How could you do that?'”

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