's football mind might have been right for entering the NFL draft in April, but his body wasn't quite ready.
An ankle injury in the final game of his 2007 season with the University of Illinois
kept him from working out of NFL scouts during the all-important four months before the draft, leaving him undrafted after the April 26-27 festivities were complete.
Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier acknowledged that Leman's ankle injury was the main reason he wasn't among those chosen on draft weekend.
"No doubt about it. When you aren't able to work out in the offseason – you can't pass teams physicals – in this day and age, it's hard for people to draft you. It's really hard, so we're fortunate to have him," Frazier said. "There's no question in my mind if he didn't have the injury at the end of the year, he would have been drafted."
Either way, the Vikings sound happy to have him and he is happy to join a team that he became familiar with during the offseason.
"I knew I was one of those borderline guys that could have gone either way, drafted or undrafted. I had taken a visit to the Vikings and I knew I loved them," he said, referring to the mass visit the Vikings conducted about three weeks before the draft. "I loved the Vikings organization, so when they offered a free-agent deal I jumped at it. The biggest thing to talk about was good people, from top to bottom. All of the coaches, all the support staff – from those guys to higher up – they were great people. The people really make the place."
Leman met with the Vikings coaches at the time, went out to dinner with all of the participants and generally had a good time, he said. There were other options after the draft was complete, but within hours he had an agreement in place with the Vikings, knowing he liked the people and atmosphere.
He said other offers were pretty similar financially but that "the Vikings by far were the best fit for me."
The Vikings got an accomplished linebacker out of the deal.
Leman entered the 2007 season on numerous preseason award and watch lists and tied for third in the Big Ten by averaging 10.36 tackles per game, including a season-opening performance of 20 tackles against Missouri. In 2006, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors by the Associated Press and second-team by the conference coaches and Scout.com, was an honorable mention All-American by Sport Illustrated, and led the Big Ten with 152 tackles.
But Leman, too, said his ankle injury in the 2007 season finale was the biggest factor in him going undrafted. Because of the timing of it, he wasn't able to run at the NFL Scouting Combine or even at his pro day. Now, Leman says, his ankle "has been nothing but 100 percent" while making his way through organized team activities with the Vikings over the last few weeks.
"I ran a 4.3 in college and I think I could be a good fit. It's getting off of blocks and tackling people on defense. Once you learn this stuff, it's ‘Can you make the plays?'" said the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder who has been working at middle linebacker. "I don't know if I'm a run-stopper or pass-pro guy, you've got to do it all, really. The people that make the plays will play."
Frazier said Leman has the mind and attitude to handle the responsibilities that go along with playing middle linebacker in the pros.
"(He's) a guy who really plays hard. He's a very bright football player, had a lot of success on the college level, has tremendous leadership qualities, and you're always looking for that in the locker room, on the football field, and you want competition on your football team," Frazier said. "So he's going to give us some competition at the Mike position. You would think that with E.J. (Henderson) and then with Derrick Pope
, there would probably be a dropoff because Derrick has been in the league a little bit, but we really feel like J. is going to able to push our other linebackers and give us some depth on special teams, so we're going to see how it plays out."
What Leman knows so far is that he has to continue to prove that he's a well-rounded player the team can count on in many different situations and facets of the game.
"I think they want to see me do everything that a Mike linebacker should do – stop the run, be a leader of the defense and special teams and cover the pass," he said.
Middle linebacker J. Leman's football offseason got off to a crawling start, but after being unable to impress scouts earlier in the year he is hoping his practice performances of late are helping his chances at making the Vikings' roster. See what the middle linebacker and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had to say about his prospects.
See what the middle linebacker and Leslie Frazier had to say about Leman's prospects.
J. Leman (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)