Most of the noise coming out of the Indianapolis Colts’ fan base following Darius Leonard being drafted with the team’s first second-round pick was confusion. Fans didn’t know much about him, he wasn’t the big name linebackers we’ve heard so much about up through the draft process and talking heads didn’t have much to offer about Leonard.
Up to this point, I fell into that hole as well. I hadn’t heard much about him, and quite honestly, with the Colts new defensive scheme being implemented under Matt Eberflus, it was almost an entirely new position to dive into.
But the NFL Draft is a very different animal where we find ourselves surprised every year. This year is no different. But, don’t worry, Ballard did the roster and the fan base a solid with this draft regardless of any narrative that pops up.
After catching up on Leonard’s tape, and taking into account what the new system will demand of the linebackers I’ve found that he was a very good fit for what the Colts are doing and that his name was called in an applicable time in the draft.
First we need to understand what the Colts are targeting at the position with consideration to the change. They’re not looking for those 250-260 pound edge-setters per se, rather guys who are more versatile and adept in man coverage versus tight ends and running backs as well as being good in pursuit to the ball carrier.
Chris Ballard has constantly relayed the emphasis on speed from the front seven and Leonard brings great straight-line speed with a long motor to consistently remain in contention for the tackle. While he’s not extremely tall, his length (34-inch arms) is an asset that really makes him appear to be a few inches taller than his 6-foot-2 frame.
He has excellent lateral agility, is a very patient tackler and works off of blocks well with his eyes on the ball carrier at all times. Leonard is the perfect answer to the Colts need at the WILL linebacker position. He’s not going to be a guy who is there to shoot gaps and stack up running backs at the line of scrimmage, but his play speed and very quick processor makes him and ideal addition used for reigning in running backs who are trying to bust it outside for big yardage.
When looking at his blitzing opportunities, you don’t see a great bend from Leonard when he rushes the passer, rather he typically finds his way into the backfield via twists with the defensive end. He does have a sharp corner to his pursuit, though, that usually makes itself evident when trailing the ball carrier to the opposite side of the play.
While Leonard isn’t a punishing tackler by any stretch, he is a sure tackler despite maybe being on the short end of play strength — which is okay for now. As the WILL, Leonard won’t be taking on the tight ends and lineman as much which will give him time to build some play strength and ultimately even more versatility. Additionally, Leonard brings the ability to disrupt passing lanes whether coming off the edge or sitting back in coverage.
He has the ability to knock down passes, however, I wouldn’t anticipate him being a tight cover guy without a year or two to develop in that realm. On the other hand, he will make life difficult on quarterbacks trying to throw over him in the middle of the field.
After all of that, Leonard was a very good pick for the Colts, and he wasn’t overdrafted either. If you take a look at what the others at the position graded out and include when they were drafted, you’ll see that Ballard did well to get him when he did.
Another linebacker that the Colts acquired post draft as an UDFA is Skai Moore. Moore also stands about 6-foot-2, but is about 10 pounds lighter than Leonard. You can make a case that Moore should have been drafted, but on tape there’s a very definitive gap between the two and their expected ceilings in the league.
That’s not to say that Moore won’t make the roster, but they are vastly different players.
Aside from their height, their only real similarity is that they both project to playing the WILL position. To a bit of a surprise for me, I found Moore to be more physical and aggressive to the gaps and ball carrier.
In comparison to Leonard, Moore shows more urgency to the ball carrier inside the box, but doesn’t have the speed in pursuit that Leonard brings. Additionally, Moore’s motor doesn’t run quite as long either. He does process what’s in front of him very quickly, though, but would rather side step blockers in pursuit to the ball carrier.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Moore doesn’t possess the ability to work through those blockers and find success as often. Where Leonard is more of a cautious tackler, Moore has quite a bit more pop behind his pads. He’s less of a technician and more of a seek-and-destroy type at the position, which again, isn’t a negative to his game, but it will force him to learn and develop differently in order to get on the field.
Moore also had very good 4-year production accumulating 3 seasons with 50-plus tackles, while racking up 62, and 68 solo tackles in 2 of those seasons. One of the most notable features of his tackling style is that he squares up very well to the ball carrier making him quite accurate at hitting his target.
Another contrast between the two is that Moore shows more of the defensive back skills in coverage. He lacks some of the athleticism to be a great man-cover linebacker, but is very instinctive when dropped back into a zone, especially in the middle of the field.
Moore collected 14 interceptions at South Carolina, and while he is disciplined with his keys, he’s a bit more of a gambler in back in a zone due to having his eyes too reliant on the quarterback’s eyes. Once a quarterback comes off of his first read, Moore can find himself a ways out of position. With that said, his instinctual approach to coverage mitigate this somewhat and could fancy him a more of a play-maker at the next level.
I do believe that Moore could be an excellent special teams player as well. His willingness to knock someone’s block off is kind of what that role calls for. In the end, I think Ballard and the Colts were successful in finding quality at the position over the past several days.
There’s a different design, a different template to the players at the position in the new scheme and it’ll take some time for us to acclimate ourselves to seeing what the front office and coaching staff are looking for from the position. In this case, we should be happy with what Ballard has brought in.
Athletic, instinctive and quality scheme fits who will all be reliant on the coaching staff’s ability to legitimately develop the talent to fit their expectations. However, the Colts have a very good start with the drafting of Leonard.