According to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert (subscription), two Indianapolis Colts young studs: 3x NFL All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and rising star right tackle Braden Smith are ranked in his 2022 Top 20 potential free agents—coming in at #2 and #6 respectively:
2. Darius Leonard, LB
Team: Indianapolis Colts | Age entering 2022 season: 27
You don’t often see teams get excited about linebackers who aren’t primarily pass-rushers. But Leonard is a special player, an All-Pro twice in his first three seasons, and one who can change the look of a team’s run defense and pass coverage. The Colts’ conservative approach to free agency in 2021 portends of their effort to re-sign Leonard, among others.
6. Braden Smith, OT/G
Team: Indianapolis Colts | Age entering 2022 season: 26
An immediate starter after the Colts made him a second-round pick in 2018, Smith has played an understated role in the development of the Colts’ monster offensive line. He’s the kind of player for whom teams shell out premium deals on the open market, and he could be a franchise-tag option if the Colts get Darius Leonard re-signed first.
Now, before anyone ‘shoots the messenger’ here, there’s an incredibly strong likelihood that both of these Colts’ cornerstones among the franchise’s prized home run 2018 NFL Draft Class will never actually hit the open market in 2022—or at least not without being slapped with the team’s franchise tag first.
(I also have no idea why Smith is still being listed as an offensive guard. Until he hits his early thirties and potentially loses some lateral quickness, he should firmly be considered an offensive tackle at this juncture).
Regarding Leonard, the hidden gem out of South Carolina State has instantly become one of the NFL’s best linebackers, period. Not only is he a 3x NFL All-Pro, but he’s also a 2x NFL Pro Bowler and previously won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2018.
Leonard had 132 tackles (86 solo) [which led the Colts], 7 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 7 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries during 14 starts for Indianapolis this past season.
Per PFF (subscription), Leonard was their 10th best graded linebacker with a +70.4 overall grade in 2020.
‘The Maniac’ has been a vital linchpin to the Colts defense with his ability to make plays, tackles, cover receivers, and create turnovers all over the field—with a nose for finding the football (especially in crunch time), as a Hall of Fame ‘Derrick Brooks’ like presence to Indianapolis’ fast ‘Cover 2’ defense.
He simply stuffs the stat sheet and is the total package at the linebacker position.
Meanwhile, while less heralded, Colts starting right tackle Braden Smith continues to ascend as one of the best young offensive tackles in all of football.
The former 2018 second round pick out of Auburn was originally thought to be an offensive guard at the next level, but assumed the right tackle job early on in his career (because of injuries elsewhere) and has seemingly never looked back—firmly solidifying the position for the Colts.
Smith has made 43 career starts for the Colts over the past three seasons—all at starting right tackle and should be on the verge of at least a Pro Bowl appearance with his consistently rock solid overall blocking.
Per PFF, Smith was their 16th best offensive tackle this past season with a +80.1 overall grade during 14 starts.
In 578 total pass blocking snaps, Indy’s starting right bookend allowed 0 sacks and just 25 total QB pressures—while committing a mere 3 penalties overall.
On an already star-studded offensive line that includes two NFL All-Pros, Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly, Smith remains one of the unit’s unsung heroes—and should add an All-Pro to his own name some time here shortly.
Armed with roughly $31.0M of available cap space (until the Xavier Rhodes deal becomes official), it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Colts look to get at least one of Leonard or Smith’s looming lucrative mega-deals done early—saving the franchise tag for the other (just in case contract negotiations were to ultimately break down).
However, rest assured, neither one of these young studs should be headed anywhere else, anytime soon—as Colts general manager Chris Ballard has made it a clear point to prioritize and continue to act prudently to retain the team’s top homegrown talent going forward.