Indianapolis Colts All-Pro linebacker sensation Darius Leonard used as motivation a screenshot of a Bleacher Report article calling him one of 2018’s “worst draft picks”.
During an appearance Tuesday on NFL Network’s “NFL Total Access”, the First Team All-Pro defender acknowledged that many in the media had underestimated his potential leading up to and during his rookie 2018 season.
“Last year I was called the worst draft pick by... Bleacher Report, and I screenshotted it and everyday I looked at it,” Leonard told hosts Lindsay Rhodes and Daniel Jeremiah. “And it kind of gave me the drive to prove that I wasn’t the worst draft pick and that I could play at the next level.”
That wasn’t the only interesting thing the 23-year-old revealed on the show. Leonard also told NFL Total Access that he wants 200 tackles and ten sacks in 2019. He led the NFL in tackles in 2018.
To be precise, Bleacher Report called him “one of the draft’s worst picks,” noting that even with four second-round picks, “this one stands out as a head-scratcher.”
Bleacher Report continued: “For whatever reason, we woke up Friday in a world where Indianapolis thought taking an FCS linebacker in the top 40 was a good idea. The selection was turned in with running backs Ronald Jones, Kerryon Johnson and Derrius Guice still on the board.”
Tampa Bay’s Jones carried the ball 23 times for 44 yards in 2018 while Washington’s Guice tore his ACL in the preseason and missed all of 2018. Detroit’s Johnson had a promising season with 641 rushing yards.
But none of them came close to what Leonard achieved for a franchise hungry for its first legitimate defensive superstar since Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Leonard piled up a host of impressive accolades in 2018 as a rookie. He was the only player with multiple sacks (7), forced fumbles (4), fumble recoveries (2) and interceptions (2). Moreover, his 163 tackles were the most in a single season by a rookie since Luke Kuechly’s 164 tackles in 2012. The all-time record for most tackles by a rookie? That went to Patrick Willis in 2007 when the then 49ers rookie put up 174 tackles.
The accolades continued. In 2018, Leonard was the only player with over 150 tackles and seven sacks in almost 20 years, since the 2000 season.
And as for Leonard’s 200-tackle aspirations, doing so would put him close to the all-time single-season tackle record. That was set in 1993 when Tampa Bay linebacker Hardy Nickerson recorded a jaw-dropping 214 tackles for the 5-11 Buccaneers.
Along with those goals, he also wants Defensive Player of the Year, All-Pro honors, a Super Bowl and a Super Bowl MVP. Technique-wise, he said he wants to get off blocks quicker. After 2018 people might be taking his goals much more seriously.
While the Bleacher Report article may not have aged well in the Internet world, predicting All-Pro linebackers in their first season is hardly an easy task.
Still, there were some warning signs that Leonard was no joke.
While he did play in the weaker FCS at South Carolina State (which also produced Bills safety Rafael Bush), Leonard was still putting up high-value numbers. He finished his junior year with 124 tackles, including 19 against Deshaun Watson’s Clemson Tigers. It may have been the revenge he needed after being snubbed by Clemson during recruiting, the school that his older brother played for. He said the experience provided him a heavy chip on his shoulder.
Interestingly, Leonard said Tuesday on NFL Total Access that he still has a chip on his shoulder despite his magical first season.
“I wasn’t an MVP, I wasn’t on the top of the charts, I wasn’t a Pro Bowler and I wasn’t a Super Bowl champion, so there’s still goals I want to achieve,” said Leonard.
The Colts begin training camp on July 25.