The draft had ended in 2012 and no team thought Rodney McLeod was worthy of a selection. Fifty defensive backs heard their names called, leaving McLeod surprised by his exclusion from the group.
So he went through the usual post-draft recruiting frenzy for undrafted players and signed with the St. Louis Rams. They had a new coaching staff that season and invited three undrafted safeties to join the roster. McLeod was told that one of them would make the 53-man team.
"That's all I could ask for, is an opportunity," McLeod said.
Five seasons later, McLeod is a starting safety on the Eagles in the first year of a five-year, $37 million contract he signed in March. He's only 26 and is in position to be one of the team's key players for the rest of the decade.
In McLeod's first training camp, when he was just one of those undrafted players trying to make the team, Bill McGregor received a phone call. McGregor, then the coach of DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., coached McLeod in high school. The call was from a Rams assistant who also played at DeMatha and wanted to give the coach an update on his former player.
"He's going to have a 10-year career," the assistant said.
By the time McLeod's Eagles contract expires, he'll be entering his 10th year. McLeod offered the usual reasons to explain how he went from undrafted to becoming one of the 12 highest-paid safeties in the NFL: a work ethic, football skills that belied measureables, good coaching.
But he also mentioned timing and opportunity. He found a team that was turning over its roster and planned on keeping an undrafted safety. That was all he needed to hear.
"Once I got my foot in the door, I'm like, 'I'm going to show these people what I can do,' " McLeod said. "And I just made the most of every opportunity given to me. Didn't waste a rep."
When McLeod arrived at DeMatha to play for McGregor, he was a 125-pound freshman. McGregor had no prejudice against size. He once had a 103-pound freshman who turned into one of his best players. That player? Eagles great Brian Westbrook.
"They're both undersized-type players, but they both have that intangible," McGregor said. "First off, they're both character people. They do what's right, and they take pride in doing what's right - and they do it all the time. Academics, those were very intelligent young man. In terms of work ethic, their work ethic was impeccable. As a human being, as a football player, as a student - they had success written all over them. Fortunately, it was in the NFL. . . . But no matter what line of work they would have done, you know they would have been top of the line in everything they'd do."
McGregor said with McLeod, there was too much attention paid to size. McLeod is listed at 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds. But the recipients of his hits might have a different opinion. When fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins heard a question about McLeod's being small, Jenkins quickly interjected.
"He's not that small," Jenkins said.
McLeod's father, who goes by the same name, said McLeod could fool you because he's always smiling and has "the big eyes." It's been that way since he was a child growing up in Maryland. But when he's on the field, he's different. And he always knows what to do - the intangible that McGregor saw in Westbrook, too.
"He's a smart player," Jenkins said. "He's really, really explosive out of the post. He's a fast guy who closes ground real well, tackles real well. And he's smart. He studies well, and that allows him to play even faster. So whenever you're a really fast player and instinctive player and know what's to come, it stands out on tape. He's making a lot of plays."
McLeod had an interception in the season opener and another in Week 3 against Pittsburgh. If history is any indication, more might be on the way this Sunday against Washington.
Portending a pick?
The Eagles jerseys in the FedEx Field crowd won't just be for Carson Wentz. Expect to see McLeod's No. 23, too. Kimberly Holloman, McLeod's mother, mentioned all the usual joys of seeing her son play minutes from his childhood home outside Washington, D.C. But there's another one Holloman noted that would excite Eagles fans.
When McLeod returns home, it usually means an interception is coming.
McLeod played the Redskins in 2014 and recorded an interception and a forced fumble. When the Rams played at Baltimore last season, McLeod also tallied an interception and a forced fumble. Those were his lone visits to his home state in his four NFL seasons. As a senior at Virginia in 2011, McLeod intercepted three passes during a game at Maryland.
"There's no feeling like going back home," McLeod said. "You just have an extra little boost. I always feel like when I go home, I make a play."
But even with his strong play this season, McLeod thought he could have played better. During a bye-week conversation with his father, he said he needed to "redeem" himself when the Eagles visit Washington.
"When he tells me he's going to do that, I know my son," McLeod Sr. said. "I know he's going to be out there all over the place."
During free agency, McLeod had a few aggressive suitors. The Eagles targeted him, competing with Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and the Rams. Money is the most powerful seducer in free agency, and once the numbers were right and the organization fit what he wanted, McLeod realized the residual benefits of signing with Philadelphia: Home games are two hours away from his family and there are annual visits to play in the Washington area.
Plus, similar to his rookie season, there was a team with a new coaching staff looking for a safety. This time, it wasn't just to make the roster. It was to be one of the marquee players. McLeod's career has been made by taking advantage of opportunities - and he thinks the door that cracked open in Philadelphia has much behind it.
"I haven't been fortunate enough to be on a team with a winning record . . . in this league," McLeod said. "This is big for me. I'm just an added piece. They had pieces already here. I'm just one they brought in to take us to the next level."