Why Jim Leonhard decided to pursue an NFL coaching career with Broncos’ Sean Payton

Jim Leonhard, left, coaches Denver Broncos safety PJ Locke (6) at organized team activities at Broncos Park Powered by CommonSpirit in Englewood, Colorado on June 4, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Jim Leonhard trusted his eyes.

Such a belief is fundamental to any good defensive back.

So when the 41-year-old’s smooth, fast-rising coaching career took a major hit in late 2022, he first took a step back. Then he reflected on what he had seen and let it lead him to his next milestone: the NFL.

Leonhard began this stretch of his coaching career in February when Sean Payton hired him as Denver’s secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator. Payton also tried to hire him a year earlier, shortly after Leonhard thought the University of Wisconsin head coaching job was locked up, only to see the school hire Luke Fickell instead.

Over the past twelve months, Leonhard has experienced many new things, but also one familiar theme: many people were interested in hiring him.

So why ultimately say yes to Payton and the Broncos? He based his decision on an old scouting report from eleven years ago, when he was part of the New Orleans selection under Payton from April to August 2013.

“He cut me, so he had to overcome some things there,” Leonhard told The Post with a smile. “But it was a unique experience for me. It was later in my career, but the way he talked, the way he communicated with the team and set the vision for what the program was about, it felt a little different and it piqued my interest. …

“(Denver) wasn’t a team that I necessarily studied or knew everything about. A little bit of confidence in his record and what I had seen and experienced as a player and other coaches I had talked to that were around him. I just thought it was a unique opportunity to come in.

Leonhard’s reputation is as a strong teacher, but also a fast learner. It’s safe to assume he will not only work to help a mostly young Broncos secondary get into shape under Vance Joseph, but also watch and learn from the veteran coordinator and from Payton. After all, Payton likes to collect assistants at advantage and thinks Leonhard is the latest to own a lot.

“I’ve known him for a while,” Payton said, “and he’s one of those guys – not just myself, but I would say a number of people around the league – who have followed him and said, ‘This guy’s got a really good future as a coach in this league.’”

Jump to the NFL

Leonhard almost didn’t get a start in the NFL at all.

It didn’t look like he would need one.