When the NFL announced the 2018 Pro Bowl roster a little over a week ago, rookie linebacker Darius Leonard was absent from the list. The best argument that can be made for his absence is that he was listed as an outside linebacker but plays more inside in the Colts defensive scheme. Even then, any voting system that intends to recognize the best individual performers in a given season but fails to include Leonard is broken.
If the same system keeps Tom Brady in as quarterback but does not include Andrew Luck, it is broken.
While the NFL can’t go back and get it right on the Pro Bowl vote, another opportunity is fast approaching. Seasonal awards will be handed out to individual players on offense and defense. The holy trinity each season is the MVP, offensive player of the year and defensive player of the year awards.
Next is rookie offensive and rookie defensive players of the year.
The Colts will have a candidate in each of the rookie categories deserving of votes. Quenton Nelson may receive a couple of votes for offensive rookie of the year but will lose in a landslide to running back Saquon Barkley. Such is life as a guard in the NFL.
Leonard, though, should be the odds on favorite to win defensive rookie of the year. The only competition worthy of mention is safety Derwin James but we will take a close look at what sets Leonard apart, namely that he is having the most productive rookie season in NFL history.
No position consistently records more tackles than the linebacker position. It makes longevity difficult and takes physical a toll throughout a full season. These fact make it difficult to sustain high levels of production, due to fatigue or injuries, and it also tends to devalue tackles as a stat for voters. While it is fair to devalue the stat generally, there have been times throughout NFL history that it simply couldn’t be ignored.
Patrick Willis holds the NFL’s all-time rookie tackle record with 174 in 2007. It was arguably the greatest single rookie defensive season of all time. Willis’ full stat line over the course of 16 regular season games in 2007 is as follows: 174 tackles, 4 sacks, 8 tackles for a loss, 7 quarterback hits, 5 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery.
Leonard is 19 tackles away from the all-time mark and 12 away from tying the all-time Colts tackle record set by D’Qwell Jackson in 2014 — 167.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly received the 2012 Rookie Defensive Player of the Year award after leading the league in tackles.
Kuechly had 164 tackles, 1 sack, 12 tackles for a loss, 1 quarterback hit, 2 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, and 3 fumble recoveries in 16 games.
Leonard has 155 tackles, 7 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, 8 quarterback hits, 1 interception, 6 passes defensed, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries in 14 games.
For those who are wondering: yes, Darius Leonard would likely have set the all-time rookie tackle record in a season if he had not missed a game. Patrick Willis averaged 10.88 tackles per game. Darius Leonard is averaging 11.07 tackles per game.
LINEBACKERS WHO WON DROY VS DARIUS LEONARD
Patrick Willis — 2007 — 174 TKL, 4 sacks, 8 TFL, 7 QBH, 5 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR — 16 Games
Jerod Mayo — 2008 — 126 TKL, 5 TFL, 1 QBH, 4 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR — 16 Games
Brian Cushing — 2009 — 133 TKL, 4 sacks, 12 TFL, 12 QBH, 4 INT, 10 PD, 2 FF — 16 Games
Luke Kuchely — 2012 — 164 TKL, 1 sack, 12 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 INT, 7 PD, 3 FR — 16 Games
Darius Leonard — 2018 — 155 TKL, 7 sacks, 12 TFL, 8 QBH, 1 INT, 6 PD, 4 FF, 2 FR — 14 Games
Derwin James — 2018 — 99 TKL, 3.5 sacks, 4 TFL, 6 QBH, 3 INT, 13 PDs — 15 Games
Darius Leonard is superior in every statistical category to Patrick Willis’ absurd 2007 season except for tackles. As mentioned, he is averaging more tackles per game. This is a ludicrous level of production that no other rookie linebacker has produced in NFL history. He dwarfs all linebacker DROYs in production outside of Willis.
What about his individual impact on games?
On the road in Washington, Week 2, he stopped an offensive drive with 5 minutes to go in the fourth quarter by forcing Jordan Reed to fumble. It was recovered by Pierre Desir and put the Redskins on ice for good.
On the road in Philadelphia, Week 3, he almost single-handily kept the Colts in the game. He finished with 13 tackles, 2 sacks, and a pass defensed.
At home against Houston, Week 4, he did all he could to help the Colts pull back into the game late. He finished with 13 tackles and a sack.
At home against Buffalo, Week 7, Leonard went off for 17 tackles and a fumble recovery. The Colts blew out the Bills.
On the road in Oakland, Week 8, the Raiders had been able to move the ball effectively on the Colts defense for two straight quarters. The lead was one touchdown and the Raiders received the ball with a chance to tie. On the very first play, Leonard forced a fumble that was recovered by Matthew Adams. The Colts offense took the short field to score and make the victory look far more lopsided than it was.
At home against Tennessee, Week 11, Leonard played a huge role in dismantling the Titans. He finished the game with 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception and a forced fumble. He dominated the Titans offense and refused to let them get anything going.
On the road in Houston, Week 14, Leonard played a major role in the second half to help defeat the Texans. He not only collected 6 tackles and a sack on the Texans’ opening second half drive, he knocked down a would-be touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins late in the fourth quarter. While Houston scored on both of those drives, Leonard was a huge factor and ended up helping take enough time off of the clock for the Colts to control at the ball to end the game.
What can’t be measured in stats and individual game situations is Leonard’s impact on the Colts defensive personality. He is the spark plug and the heart for a defense that swarms to the ball and makes life difficult for opponents. He has had a huge impact on Anthony Walker and is a big part of the reason that running on the Colts is so difficult.
If you remove Darius Leonard from Indy’s defense, the unit would fall apart. If Andrew Luck is what makes the offense tick, Darius Leonard is what makes the defense tick. If the Colts unlikely push for a chance at a playoff berth is credited to a rookie coaching staff, general manager, and the return of a young superstar quarterback, it also has to be credited to Darius Leonard and his extremely important role in the Colts defensive renaissance in the back half of the season.
Darius Leonard is easily the best defensive player on his team. Derwin James is not. James plays on a team that includes Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Leonard plays on the youngest defense in the league whose superstars consist of a former first round safety whose role is limited due to the defensive scheme and because he is just over a year removed from a catastrophic knee injury, two waiver wire claims at cornerback, and a first-year starter brought in through free agency on the defensive line.
The group I just described. As marquee name vacant as it is, is ranked 11th in total yards allowed per game, 13th in points allowed per game, 8th in rushing yards allowed per game, and 17th in passing yards allowed per game.
One year ago?
The defense was ranked 30th in total yards allowed per game, 30th in points allowed per game, 28th in rushing yards allowed per game and 28th in passing yards allowed per game.
No single rookie defensive player has had a more profound impact on his team. No single rookie defensive player has been more productive in 2018. In fact, perhaps no rookie defensive player has been more productive in NFL history.
Leonard may not be a Pro Bowler, in some Twilight Zone parallel universe, but he damn sure deserves to be recognized as the defensive rookie of the year.