According to NFL.com’s Nick Shook using ‘NFL Next Generation’ stats, Indianapolis Colts All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard is among the NFL’s Top 10 best in coverage—sliding in at the final spot as the only linebacker to make the list:
10. Darius Leonard
Indianapolis Colts · OLB
Passer rating allowed: 58.6. Catch rate allowed below expectation: -3.9. Tight window pct: 27.5. Target rate: 15.6. Average separation yards: 4.7.
Leonard’s numbers look a bit different than those of the other players featured here because he’s covering from a linebacker spot, not as a defensive back on the perimeter or in the slot. Leonard’s task is arguably more difficult, as he’s expected to consistently stop the run and also cover all types of targets — receivers, running backs and tight ends — while also carrying a larger body around the field.
Having said that, Leonard is a machine. His five interceptions led all linebackers, his 58.6 passer rating allowed as the nearest defender in coverage was also the best mark among LBs and he also finished with seven passes defensed. We can’t forget his pick-six of Jameis Winston in Tampa, either. The fact he landed on this list goes to show just how good a player Leonard is.
Shook filtered the coverage candidates by a minimum of 300 coverage snaps and 40 targets respectively. He then used the following key metrics in further evaluation: passer rating allowed, catch rate allowed below expectation, tight window percentage, target rate, average separation yards, and lastly, ballhawk rate and coverage-success rate were also considered as his supplemental metrics.
However, the metrics support what Colts fans have already routinely seen with their eyeballs: that Leonard is elite in coverage as a young star NFL linebacker.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), Leonard played 437 coverage snaps last season and was targeted 74 times for 59 receptions, 559 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions during his 13 starts—making plays like this:
Darius Leonard INTERCEPTION #MIAvsIND— PFF (@PFF) November 10, 2019
Here's Winston's 2nd INT of the day to #Colts LB Darius Leonard.— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) December 9, 2019
Goes as a stat against Winston, but this is just a hat tip to a great LB making a great play.
Leonard fully engages with the C before dropping. Opens up late S blitz. Drops w/ hands up. Perfect execution from 53. pic.twitter.com/IHCcon2Q6I
At 6’2”, 230 pounds, Leonard might be the closest thing to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks we’ve seen in recent memory playing coverage in the Colts ‘Cover 2’ or ‘Cover 3’ derivative in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ fast, zone scheme.
The 2x NFL All-Pro linebacker has great speed, long arms, and change of direction skills in space, but it’s his instincts, anticipation, and quick reactions—not to mention ball skills and hands, that clearly separate him from other linebackers in coverage.
However, to say Leonard just benefits by surprising quarterbacks in zone coverage is unfair, as he’s also shown the ability to ‘man-up’ the league’s top wideouts at times—including former Houston Texans All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins here:
Putting a rookie linebacker on one of the most dangerous receivers in football.— Kevin Bowen (@KBowen1070) December 10, 2018
Can’t tell if that is insanity or just incredible belief in the talented Darius Leonard, covering in that small of a space. pic.twitter.com/ITUgljlJG2
Leonard is the top young linebacker in the sport right now, as the 24 year old is fresh off another superstar caliber season for the Colts in which he recorded 121 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 5 interceptions, 7 passes defensed, and 2 forced fumbles—as a dynamic ‘stat-stuffer’.
He’s off to an unprecedented pace at linebacker after the first two seasons of his career, and his spectacular play in coverage is one of the big reasons why.