According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler [subscription], the Indianapolis Colts Darius Leonard is the NFL’s 4th best linebacker for 2020 (via a poll conducted by 50 league executives, coaches, players, and scouts):
4. Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Age: 24 | Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 7
There isn’t a statistical area in which Darius Leonard doesn’t excel.
The Colts selected Leonard in the second round of the 2018 draft and in return Leonard has provided 12 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, 15 pass deflections and seven interceptions. Since individual sacks became official in 1982, Leonard and Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher are the only players with 10 sacks and five interceptions in their first two seasons.
He’ll pick you off, then make people miss, averaging 18.6 yards per interception return through two seasons. He drives on the ball like a throwback.
“Probably not as close to peak Wagner physically, but he’s so tall and long and forceful with a really unique skill set that he can just get involved in everything,” said a veteran NFL defensive back. “Good change of direction, and he uses his frame really well.”
One AFC scout said Leonard might be best in a zone defense that allows him to chase and pursue. But the Colts have involved Leonard in multiple coverages. His tackles were down slightly, from 163 in 2018 to 121 in 13 games last season, but the Colts experimented with defensive front tweaks where Leonard didn’t have to clean up all of the time.
“I love that guy,” said one veteran NFL offensive assistant coach. “He can change the game.”
Leonard ranked just behind the Seattle Seahawks Bobby Wagner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Lavonte David, and Minnesota Vikings Eric Kendricks respectively.
Since being selected in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft—as one of the heists of all pro football heists, the 6’2”, 230 pound linebacker with freakishly long arms (34 3/8”) has become a 2x NFL All-Pro and monster for the Colts defense (and was also the 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year).
Leonard is a dynamic playmaker at the second level of Matt Eberflus’ ‘Cover 2’ derivative—who can do it all (drawing comparisons to Tampa Bay Bucs’ Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks)—and simply stuffs the stat sheet.
Leonard recorded 121 tackles (71 solo), 7 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 5 interceptions (including one for a touchdown), 7 passes defensed, and 2 forced fumbles during 13 starts in 2019.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription), Leonard was their 7th best graded linebacker among qualifying players at his position with a +79.2 overall grade this past season.
He was recently named to PFF’s ‘All-Clutch Team’ with his late game heroics, and he’s been highly regarded for his coverage ability—as he was also listed among the NFL’s Top 10 best overall defenders in coverage ahead of 2020:
“Having said that, Leonard is a machine,” NFL.com’s Nick Shook previously wrote. “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.”
What a play by Darius Leonard. Breaks off his blitz for the 80-yard pick 6. 2nd INT of the game too pic.twitter.com/9ZP7YjJaME— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) December 10, 2019
Despite Madden ‘21 sleeping on him with just an 85 overall rating, Leonard is a stud and arguably the NFL’s best young linebacker. He should also move up a rung on the NFL’s top overall linebacker ladder with Carolina Panthers All-Pro Luke Kuechly retiring this offseason.
For perspective, Leonard is the only player in league history to record 250+ tackles, 10.0+ sacks, 5+ interceptions, and 5+ forced fumbles after his first two seasons in the NFL.
With new Colts’ All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner consistently commanding double teams and causing disruption in the interior—as well as much needed pass pressure, ‘The Maniac’ should be freed up and put in a prime position to make even more plays during the 2020 campaign.
He’s simply a superstar at linebacker for the Colts and already one of the game’s truly elite—always ‘bringing the juice’: