Bengals running Brian Leonard is not only coming off the biggest-impact season of his three-year NFL career, but his best offseason.
"For the first time I've been in the NFL I haven't had to worry about surgery or rehab," Leonard said this week. "It feels nice to be able to just come into a season at full speed and not have to wait around."
The 6-1, 230-pound Leonard, picked up in a May trade with the Rams while he rehabbed from rotator cuff surgery, reached cult status during the Bengals' run to the playoffs. Working primarily as the third-down back, he offered the now famous "Leonard Lunge" to go along with the "Leonard Leap" on fourth-and-10 to make the Bengals 23-20 last-minute win over the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium possible.
But that wasn't all. He recovered an aborted shotgun snap on the winning drive against Baltimore two weeks later. His 17-yard catch on third-and-five kept the go-ahead touchdown drive alive in Pittsburgh. His eight-yard catch on third-and-seven from his own 5 fueled the winning drive against Kansas City that clinched the division.
"I felt my role was getting bigger throughout the season and hopefully it carries over to the next season," Leonard said. "In the last three or four games I was in more on first and second down and hopefully I'll get a little more in the running game, but we've got some great running backs."
With Cedric Benson (six), rookie Bernard Scott (one), and the departed Larry Johnson (one) racking up a club-record eight 100-yard games, Leonard was left 27 carries to get 84 yards, but added 30 catches for 217 more. As a rookie in '07, he had 86 carries for 303 yards and 30 catches for 183, but the Rams won just three games.
Leonard developed a good enough friendship with Benson during the season that he extended an invite to his charity bowling tournament held in New York City in February. Benson showed up and was one of 25 pro athletes that helped Leonard raise more than $60,000 for Embrace Kids, a charity for children with cancer and blood disorders that helps their families with medical bills and travel costs.
"We hung out after the event and Cedric enjoyed it. He enjoys getting out in the community," Leonard said. "He's a great guy. Great teammate. I listened to what the media had to say about him. I thought he was going to be cocky. But he's humble, he works hard, he shows up to practice every day to work. I have a totally different perception of him than I thought he was."
Leonard backed up Steven Jackson in St. Louis, a guy that has a reputation for running hard. But Leonard says Benson runs harder.
"I'm impressed with how Cedric's body held up last year. He's one of the hardest runners I've ever seen," Leonard said. "The way he runs, he punches the defense and wears them down during the game. I think he's a harder runner than Steven. Steven is more finesse. Cedric is going to beat you up. He's going to run downhill and hit somebody. Steven does that every once in awhile, but he has side-to-side movement for a big guy. He runs hard, but I think Cedric runs harder."
REGGIE UPBEAT: The Bengals say they would like "The Reverend" back. Tight end Reggie Kelly says the Bengals are his first choice because of how much blood, sweat and tears he's put into the program. He says the other options are going to a couple of other teams that have expressed interest or retirement, but they are running second to returning to the Bengals.
Kelly says he's hoping the sides can get together on some numbers after the Bengals watched him work out Wednesday on his surgically-repaired Achilles tendon and he thinks talks will progress now that they've seen him in action.
At 33, Kelly, a free agent who has played 90 of his 152 games with the Bengals, knows that the Bengals and everyone else are concerned about such an injury on a man of his age. But he thinks he's turning back the clock because he has been told that the left Achilles is now stronger than his healthy one.
"I feel great. I hated getting hurt, but sitting out the year I think is really going to help my body," Kelly said Friday. "I feel refreshed. The foot feels fine and right now I'm just working on football conditioning, working on some blocking sets and route running. I think they were impressed with what they saw when I worked out for them so now I just think it's going to come down to sitting down and looking at some numbers and that's up to my agent and the front office."
Kelly brings more than experience. He is one of the team's most influential locker-room leaders with a unique brew of toughness and eloquence and he knows he may be asked to be a mentor at some point. The Bengals already have a young tight end in last year's third-round pick, Chase Coffman, and the Bengals are expected to draft another one at some point in two weeks.
"I'm not looking to be a backup, but that's just my mindset," Kelly said. "I have to feel that way. If I can't contribute at 100 percent, or if people don't feel like I can start, then I'll probably hang them up. But I understand that there are going to be younger players and I'll help them. I don't think we should forget about Chase Coffman. I think he can be a very good player. I think he can block and hold down the edge as well as be a great receiver. I think he can be an outstanding tight end."
Kelly says he's not in a hurry to make a decision. He has no plans to visit other teams at the moment. He'll look at his options and he'll take even more time to rest his body.
"We'll see what happens. No matter what happens, I love the Bengals and Cincinnati," he said.
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» The scuttlebutt continues to be that the NFL regular-season schedule gets released Tuesday and that the Bengals will be the first Monday night game of the year as the Jets' first foe in their new stadium.
» Marvin Lewis gives his state of the draft news conference next Friday at 11 a.m. at PBS.
» With the Bengals preseason schedule now set (the fourth game is 6:30 p.m. in Buffalo Aug. 28), they will embark on five games in 25 days so Lewis' challenge to keep everybody fresh for the regular season is going to be on display. With the club in the Aug. 8 preseason opener at the Hall of Fame Game, Lewis' first decision is going to be what he does with the annual intrasquad scrimmage and Mock Game usually reserved for that weekend.