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Palladino: Bell Tolls For Jets Warrior Jim Leonhard

Yeremiah Bell (credit: Marc Serota/Getty Images), Jim Leonhard (credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Yeremiah Bell (credit: Marc Serota/Getty Images), Jim Leonhard (credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

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‘From the Pressbox’
By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

Some guys you just hate to say goodbye to.

Jim Leonhard is one of them. For a while there, it looked like the free agent might have had an outside shot at re-signing with New York and regaining a spot on the safety depth chart after the torn patellar tendon he suffered in Week 14 against Kansas City.

Whatever hopes he had, however, were all but dashed yesterday when the Jets confirmed they had signed former Dolphin safety Yeremiah Bell. So now, unless something truly unexpected happens, it appears Leonhard’s Jets career is already over and done. Even if he does recover from his surgery in time to be of any use in the 2012 season, it will have to be in somebody else’s uniform.

Bell, you see, represents depth to go along with holdover starter Eric Smith and newcomer LaRon Landry, not to mention drafted safety Josh Bush. He’s 34, certainly a little on the old side, but durable enough to have played every game but one for the Dolphins the past four seasons.

Bell led the Dolphins in tackles with 107 last year, and had two sacks and an interception.

He’s solid enough that the Jets no longer have to go looking for another safety until next year, when Bell’s one-year, $1.4 million guaranteed deal expires.

The down side, emotionally, is that Leonhard doesn’t have a place at all with the Jets anymore. And that’s kind of sad, because Leonhard was the sort of lunch-pail player that was easy to support. He played a good, hard-hitting safety, he returned punts.

And he came out of the undrafted ranks, having first walked on at Wisconsin, where he waited until senior year for a scholarship despite having been named All-Big Ten the two seasons before that. His school record 21 interceptions caught the NFL coaches’ eyes, and he eventually became the only undrafted rookie on the Bills’ 53-man roster in 2005.

A stop in Baltimore under the Ravens’ defensive coordinator — fella named Rex Ryan — created a path to the Jets in 2009, where he became a fan favorite as much for his humorous personality as for his savvy, physical play between the lines.

Unfortunately, injuries caused the Jets to look elsewhere. A busted tibia during a practice collision with Patrick Turner curtailed his 2010 season in December, and the blown tendon finished him last year. His absence was noticed both years.

Of even more note was the high praise Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis gave him, calling him the “quarterback” of the defense.

The Jets also drafted another safety, Antonio Allen, in the seventh round. Unless somebody goes down for good in training camp, or if Leonhard can show he’s come all the way back and stronger than ever, it would appear the safety depth is set.

So in all likelihood, it’s farewell to Leonhard, who was as reliable in deep coverage as he was when called upon in blitz and run-support situations. They won’t get that kind of versatility out of Bell, or Landry for that matter, especially if Landry experiences any kind of setback in his rehab from a torn Achilles tendon.

But, football business as it is, the Jets undoubtedly placed their bets with outsiders they think can help them immediately, with minimal risk. That’s understandable.

It’s just hard to say goodbye to a good, tough guy like Leonhard.

Do you think Leonhard will find a taker in free agency? Jets fans, does he still have a place on this team? Sound off below…