McLeod (5’-10”, 185 pounds) just happens to have played in the NFL for 11-years. What that means is that he will add a bevy of experience to this Browns safety group and become a second coach behind safety coach Ephraim Banda. He has played in 156 career games and has 138 starts.
Currently, the safety room is knee-deep in youth. McLeod is 32 years old. Newly-signed Juan Thornhill, formerly of the Super Bowl champs Kansas City Chiefs, is 27. Special teams ace D’Anthony Bell is 26. Grant Delpit and Bubba Bolden are just 24. Rookies Tanner McCalister (23) and Ronnie Hickman (21) finish out the group. What is an odd feature, every safety except Thornhill and Delpit came into the league as an undrafted free agent.
McLeod instantly has become one of the most experienced players on Cleveland’s roster. And his best season? Why, it was last year.
The new Browns safety is actually Rodney McLeod, Jr. He grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland, and attended DeMatha Catholic High School where he was a three-star football recruit as assessed by 247Sports.com. He also played basketball and ran the 100 and 200 meters in track.
During his senior year playing cornerback and wide receiver, he was scouted by numerous colleges and received scholarship offers from Rutgers, Maryland, Illinois, Virginia, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech.
After his official visit to the University of Virginia, he was hooked and committed.
Some schools wanted his receiver accomplishment whereas Virginia liked his defensive backfield abilities. McLeod wasn’t very big but was very agile and had great speed with quick feet. His precise route-runner skills transitioned him nicely to the defensive backfield.
At DeMatha, he was a two-way player and never came off the field. He was also the school’s return man. He was poised and had very good speed with a vertical jump of 36.5”. During all four years of high school, McLeod was on a league championship squad so winning was all he knew.
Part of McLeod’s legacy in high school was his ability to work hard and was taking notes as he carried a notebook with him at all times. Film study habits began at this level and then transitioned into college.
His football knowledge was as high as anyone and was known as a tough kid.
Tony Paige, McLeod’s agent, stated this on Capital News Service:
“When you’re a student of the game, and you study, that allows you to play faster, and it allows you to play more positions. That’s what coaches in the National Football League are looking for. He can’t help that he’s 5’-10”, but he’s got a 7-foot heart.”
When McLeod arrived at Virginia, he didn’t start when he first got there, but with hard work and dedication, he finished his college career with 190 tackles, six interceptions, 10 tackles for loss, one sack, 17 pass deflections, as well as three forced fumbles.
In his senior season, he had 57 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, four picks plus seven batted passes. Virginia finally had a winning season with an 8-5-0 record and was ranked for the first time since 2007. They appeared in the first bowl game during McLeod’s four years but lost 43-24 in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
He was one of only five true freshmen to play during his first season and played mainly on special teams and in nickel situations. As a sophomore, he was moved to strong safety. McLeod had played all four years and was named team captain his senior year.
Starting an NFL career the hard way
McLeod’s career to this point had never been easy. Despite a very good senior year, McLeod went undrafted in the 2012 NFL draft.
Shortly after the draft, McLeod fielded a lot of calls from NFL teams wanting to sign him to an undrafted free agent offer. He decided upon the St. Louis Rams who inked him to a three-year $1.44 million contract.
In Rams training camp, he competed for a roster spot as a backup safety. McLeod impressed in preseason with 12 total tackles and earned some first-team reps. He made the final roster and was listed as the backup to free safety Quintin Mikell, then was inserted into the season opener and made two tackles. He became a special teams demon with 16 tackles.
When Mikell was released after that season, the door swung wide open for McLeod who won the starting SS job. After that, it was his position and he never looked back. In his four seasons with the Rams, McLeod had 246 total tackles with five interceptions midst 48 starts. He had played his last season in St. Louis on a one-year deal worth $2.35 million.
In 2016, McLeod became an unrestricted free agent and was the hottest safety prospect on the market. He received contract offers from the New York Football Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, plus the Browns had interest. In March he signed with the Eagles with a five-year agreement for $35 million ($17M guaranteed) with an $8 million signing bonus.
Along with starter Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles now had the highest-paid safety duo in the league.
The defensive coordinator for the Eagles in 2016? Current Browns DC Jim Schwartz.
Under Schwartz, McLeod had a banner year with 83 total tackles, his most since entering the league. He also had career highs in picks (3), sacks (1), and pass defenses (7).
The following year, McLeod’s 66-game streak as the starter abruptly ended when he sustained a hamstring injury in Week 2. He also had a streak of 82 consecutive game appearances end. He was a healthy scratch in Week 17 as Philadelphia ended their season 13-3-0 and was headed to the post-season.
In January of 2018, McLeod started his very first career playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. The Eagles won 15-10 as McLeod had seven solo tackles plus a sack. The following week Philly defeated the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship and went on to face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl which the Eagles won 41-33.
A knee injury limited his time in 2018 and a place on IR. In 2020 he suffered a torn ACL and again found IR home. After 2021, he was once again an unrestricted free agent.
He signed with the Indianapolis Colts and started all 17 games. This season ultimately became his statistical best including a career-best 96 total tackles.
In an interview with Colts head coach Frank Reich, he stated on the signing of McLeod:
“He’s the ultimate pro. And that’s on and off the field. He brings competitiveness on the field, in the way he practices every day. His mentality. He’s a great team player. He’s a leader. I like that intensity and the leadership that he brings as much as anything.”
Like new safety Thornhill, McLeod has playoff experience with five playoff games as the starter. Both are also Super Bowl champions.
For his career, McLeod has 18 career interceptions, 60 pass breakups, two sacks, 11 forced fumbles, 23 tackles for loss, one QB hit, two touchdowns, 138 starts, and 689 tackles.
What can the Browns expect from McLeod?
First off, if you did not know, McLeod is also an extraordinary man off the field and in the community.
In 2020 he represented the Eagles as their Walter Payton Man of the Year. His foundation is called “Change our Future, “ a youth development organization.
He also has an annual football camp at DeMatha High School each year, now in its ninth year. Free to all participants, the youth camp aims to instill confidence, motivation, and leadership in children from ages eight to 14.
He has the versatility that Schwartz requires in that he has played at both free and strong safety. And if for some reason he does not start, he is a starting-caliber athlete at the ready in case of injury which the defense won’t miss a beat. McLeod prefers to utilize a lot of cover-1 and cover-3 structures.
McLeod instantly gives the Browns two things that every defense needs: 1) he is a very good tackler, and 2) he is already well-versed in Schwartz’s defensive schemes. McLeod is not only a great tackler, but he has no issue in helping the run defense game. In Schwartz’s defense, being physical and man coverage for the secondary is mandatory.
McLeod signed a 1 year, $1,317,500 contract with Cleveland including a $152,500 signing bonus, $852,500 guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $1,317,500. On every team he played his teammates, coaches, plus the fanbase have embraced him.
Last year DC Joe Woods played a lot of 4-2-5. On the final cutdown day, the Browns kept five safeties when normally a club will only keep four. During the year, S Richard LeCounte was released.
How many safeties will Schwartz keep? A quick look has Delpit and Thornhill as the starters, with McLeod the first off the bench. Bolden was on the practice squad all last year, but his college coach was Banda so there is that connection. Hickman can make this roster as a rookie if he shows promise.
The team really likes Bell and his sure tackling instincts. What is intriguing about him is that the coaching staff cut LeCounte who they had invested a fifth-round draft pick on. Bell was undrafted. He proved to be a special teams demon with 248 snaps (55.86%), which is just about every punt or kickoff. But later as the season rolled along Bell began to receive defensive snaps (72) as well.
The fact that McLeod is even on this roster with Schwartz as the DC only means that the secondary now has the experience and an on-field leader/mentor that would help these younger secondary members flourish.
Do not for one second count out McLeod for a starting safety role despite Delpit and Thornhill already penciled in. He did not come to Cleveland to warm anyone’s bench.