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Javon Leake has chance to help New York Giants in multiple ways

Undrafted free agent could stick as return man, backup running back

Nebraska v Maryland
Javon Leake with the ball last season.
Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

University of Maryland head coach Mike Locksley considered Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake “1A and 1B” as running backs for the Terrapins in 2019. Thus, Locksley told Big Blue View via phone that he was “disappointed” for Leake when McFarland was drafted in the fourth round (124th overall) by the Chicago Bears while Leake went undrafted, signing with the New York Giants.

“I was more disappointed. Obviously with the talent he has and how we valued and saw him in relation to Anthony. Disappointed that he didn’t get drafted,” Locksley said.

“We were hoping that he would be able to get drafted, but I’m disappointed for him that he wasn’t because there’s no doubt that he’ll play in that league and have a great career in that league because of his skill.”

Let’s take a closer look at Leake as we continue profiling the 90 players the Giants will bring to training camp.

The basics

Height: 6-foot
Weight: 215
Age: 21
Position: Running back
Experience: Rookie
Contract: Year 1 of three-year, $2.3 million undrafted free agent contract | Signing bonus: $15,000 | Guaranteed: $75,000 | RFA: 2023

How he got here

Leake carried the ball only 43 times in his first two seasons at Maryland. In 2018, McFarland gained more than 1,000 yards and Ty Johnson was finishing a career that saw him land as a 2018 sixth-round pick by the Chicago Bears. In 2017, Johnson had split time with Lorenzo Harrison, a talented player who ended up “medically retiring” after a rash of injuries.

“I don’t know if he was lightly used,” said Locksley, a former Maryland assistant coach who returned to the school and was in his first year as head coach in 2019. “It was a crowded room that had some really good players in it. It’s hard to play four and five backs at a time, so I think it was a matter of being behind some really good players.”

Leake got his opportunity as a back in 2019, rushing 102 times for 736 yards (7.2 yards per carry) and catching 9 passes.

Locksley called Leake “A guy that has home run speed, toughness, really competitive spirit. All the things you look for.”

The other thing Leake has is the ability to return kicks.

Leake averaged 24.5 yards on 59 returns over three seasons with 3 touchdowns. In 2019, he averaged 26.8 yards per return.

“He’s a guy that catches the ball well out of the backfield, has value as a returner and I think he can also be a punt returner, something we made him work on throughout his career even though he wasn’t the primary guy,” Locksley said.

“There’s no doubt in the return game he does (have the ability to be an impact player in the NFL) and will be able to because he left here Big 10 returner of the year, made a lot of plays during his career here in the kickoff return. I also feel strongly he has some ability as a punt returner. Because of his vision and his toughness and speed I think he’ll make a mark as an NFL returner.”

Weirdly, for a big-play running back and excellent kickoff returner Leake ran a disastrously slow 4.65-second 40-yard dash (24th percentile) at the NFL Combine.

“I can’t tell you what happened at the Combine. I just know this — when Javon Leake got out in front of people in the Big 10 that have been drafted a lot higher than he has he has not gotten caught,” Locksley said.

“If you put on the tape he doesn’t get caught, and this is by some of the top teams in the country — the Ohio State’s, the Penn State’s, the Michigan’s — you see him run away from people. There’s no doubt in my mind that (40) time isn’t indicative to how fast he plays and how fast he’s shown to be on tape.”

2020 outlook

When you look at the Giants, there are obviously two areas of need that give Leake an opportunity to make the final roster.

At running back, only Saquon Barkley and Dion Lewis are sure bets to be on the roster. Wayne Gallman and Jon Hilliman are holdovers, but neither can be considered a lock to make the 2020 roster. Leake has an opportunity to surpass both.

His kick return ability makes him even more of a factor. Without the injured Corey Coleman a year ago, the Giants never truly settled on a kickoff return man. Coleman is back, but that job has to be considered open since Coleman isn’t a sure thing to stick, either.

When it comes to punt return, the Giants haven’t really had one reliable guy in that role since they lost Dwayne Harris to injury midway through the 2017 season. If Leake shows the aptitude for that Locksley believes he possesses it opens another avenue for him.

“I don’t know what the Giants are looking for,” Locksley said. “I know what I look for in a running back and that’s a guy that takes and protects the football, a guy that doesn’t take a lot of negative yardage plays, a guy that when given opportunities is really consistent with his production. To me those are all the things he brings to the table.

“Knowing the new running backs coach up there, Burton Burns, we worked together at Alabama, there’s no doubt how he’ll be coached and how he receives the coaching. He’ll be fine.”