ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Denver Broncos safety Jim Leonhard practiced Tuesday for the first time since undergoing a right knee operation in December.

“It feels better than it did before I hurt it,” said Leonhard, who was clearly relieved to finally get back on the football field after eight grueling months.

“Coming back from an injury, you just want to prove yourself, and I haven’t been able to do that up to this point,” Leonhard said. “It just feels good to finally get back out on the field. I put a lot of time into this rehab. It was a tough one, and I’ve put in the work. And now it’s time to get back on the field and hopefully make some plays.”

After starring at Wisconsin, Leonhard played three seasons in Buffalo and one in Baltimore before becoming a three-year starter with the Jets in New York, where he emerged as a fan favorite, noted for his hard-hitting style despite his undersized 5-foot-8, 190-pound frame.

The Jets chose not to re-sign him after he underwent surgery in December to repair a tendon in his right knee, an injury that usually takes eight to 10 months to heal. The Broncos signed him on Aug. 4 after he was able to demonstrate enough strides in his rehab.

On Tuesday, Leonhard participated in drills with Denver’s other defensive backs but was held out of team drills. He said he hopes he can practice in team portions when the Broncos (No. 10 in the AP Pro32) return Thursday from a day off.

He also said he’d like to play in one of Denver’s final two preseason games, but he’s sure the training staff will “protect me from myself” and take things slowly.

The Broncos removed him from their PUP list and placed him on their 90-man roster. They also waived cornerback Joshua Moore.

The Broncos took a chance on Leonhard, who’s been working out with strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson and head athletic trainer Steve Antonopulos.

“We actually did move him around (when) he came in for a workout,” coach John Fox said. “There was a lot of evidence on tape of what he can do and it was just a matter of needing a little time to heal, and we gave him that time.”

Leonhard is eager to show the Broncos they made the right call.

“You really can only show so much until you get on the field,” Leonhard said. “Obviously, they’ve liked what I’ve done in the past and I proved that my knee was good enough to bring me in, but you’re still sitting on the sideline and watching and that’s not a very good place to be when you’re trying to prove yourself.”

Leonhard will ease his way into a star-studded secondary that was bolstered Monday by the return of second-year safety Quinton Carter from a pulled right hamstring and surgery on his left knee.

“We could be a great defense, we really could, and that’s what gets me excited,” Leonhard said. “Sitting on the side and seeing guys make plays, that’s the frustrating part. You’re excited to get back out there and do it with them.”

Notes: Fox was chaffed by a columnist who suggested the Broncos should switch back to a 3-4 defensive scheme: “I think we have some fairly proven defensive minds on our staff, but we appreciate the suggestions,” cracked Fox.

– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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