HOUSTON, Texas — Leon O’Neal had plenty of time to absorb the feeling and the knowledge that his football dream was being delayed. Watching the NFL Draft with his family, the hard-hitting Texas A&M safety went undrafted before signing a free agent deal with the San Francisco 49ers that included $60,000 total guaranteed.
Leon O’Neal Jr. on going undrafted: ‘I will never, ever forget’
Originally projected as a middle-round to later-round target, the former Aggies and Senior Bowl standout was disappointed — and, primarily, motivated — to see a total of 21 safeties have their name called as draft picks instead of him.
It was an unforgettable and frustrating experience that O’Neal intends to thoroughly utilize as motivational fuel heading into his rookie season. Ultimately, O’Neal fell not because of his production or film but due to a slower than anticipated 40-yard dash time of 4.63 to 4.71 seconds.
“I will never, ever forget the names they called,” said O’Neal, a three-year starter for the Aggies whose rookie contract includes a $10,000 signing bonus and $50,000 of his base salary guaranteed. “I was projected from the fourth round to the seventh round, and for my name to not even be called at all, I wish those guys luck, but there’s no chance some of them are on my level. To fall because of a misinterpreted 40-yard dash time, to see a lot of that stuff, that was interesting to me. I had a lot riding on this.
“I ended up going undrafted, but it’s going to be fun. I’ve been playing ball at A&M for four years. I’ve seen the way the fans show love and support for me. That’s the cool part. Now, I’m getting embraced by the 49ers fans and representing the red and gold.”
The Aggies’ safety, named the top player at his position for his team at the Senior Bowl all-star game in balloting from offensive players, models his game after Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl safety Budda Baker. He intends to turn this negative of not being drafted into a positive.
“Honest to God, the first thing first is to be a great teammate to my guys,” O’Neal said. “I’m highly into being a brother and being a teammate more than anything. I want to represent the 49ers the right way. That’s my main goal. I’m process-oriented. My main goal is to work as hard as I possibly can, and the results happen within the work. That’s how I keep my focus.
“They’re getting an enforcer, a leader, a guy who’s dedicated to his craft with a strong work ethic. I want to learn. I want to get better. That’s the kind of guy they’re getting.”
A native of Cypress, Texas, O’Neal recorded 56 tackles last season with a pair of interceptions, returning one 85 yards for a touchdown against Kent State. He finished his career with 6 interceptions.
‘Look at Jerry Rice’
At 6’1″, 204 pounds, O’Neal had a 35-inch vertical leap, a 4.22 short shuttle, a 6.83 three-cone drill, and a 10’5″ broad jump. He joins a team that once employed Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, who famously ran a sluggish 4.7 in the 40-yard dash when he was leaving Mississippi Valley State.
“The film is what matters; I mean, look at Jerry Rice,” O’Neal said. “I’m a three-year starter in the SEC. I played against Jaylen Waddle, Ja’Marr Chase, and Justin Jefferson. They all respect me. Numerous guys know I’m the truth. For general managers not to see it, and for guys I know I’m better than still got picked, it’s in my heart. I’m going to play my game and let that speak for me.”
O’Neal plays football with an aggressive mentality, delivering punishing tackles all over the field. He gets high marks for his toughness, range, and instincts. O’Neal was deployed all over the field by Texas A&M, but he often lined up as a single-high safety. He consistently graded out highly in coverage on analytics charts.
He won the Aggies’ Heart Award, Defensive Attitude Award, and Strength and Conditioning Award last year. As a junior, O’Neal had 48 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 5 pass deflections.
At Cypress Springs High School, he had 78 tackles as a senior with 5 forced fumbles and 4 tackles for losses. He was named to the US Army All-American all-star game.
At the Texas A&M Pro Day, O’Neal met with the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. He had Zoom meetings with the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Cowboys, 49ers, and Indianapolis Colts.
He chose the 49ers over several teams’ competing offers, some of which included higher financial packages.
“Everybody gets caught up in the money, but I’m more caught up in the culture and playing for a winner,” O’Neal said. “I’m about stability. That’s what it kept coming back to for me in choosing the 49ers.”