When you think of the biggest draft hits of Chris Ballard’s career, the first name that comes to mind is linebacker Darius Leonard. One of the most head scratching picks of the 2018 draft has turned into one of the best linebackers in the league in three short years. Leonard has amassed 416 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss, 15 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, and 7 interceptions in his career thus far. He was also named the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018 and has been an All-Pro selection in all three of his career seasons.
So a record setting contract extension only seems fitting for this type of production, right? Well yes.. but there is a lot more that goes into this situation than just raw numbers and production. Today, I will be looking at every angle of this potential deal and why the decision could be more difficult than most would assume.
Before getting to Leonard’s game, let’s take a look at what a potential contract could look like for the star linebacker. The highest annual salary for an off ball linebacker in the NFL is currently Bobby Wagner’s contract at 18 million per year. Wagner signed a 3 year for 54 million dollar deal with 40 million in guaranteed money last offseason. Figuring that Leonard is much younger than Wagner and, statistically, near the same level of a player, it is only right to assume that Leonard’s deal would surpass that.
I talked to Brad Spielberger, who is a salary cap analyst for Pro Football Focus, about this potential deal. In conversations with him, he pointed out that Leonard seems like the type of player who would want to reset the market and have a record setting deal for the position. He has every right to ask for that and I tend to agree with Brad’s thinking on this.
The prediction we arrived at is a 5 years for 100 million dollars with around 55-60 million in guarantees. This would give Leonard the first 100 million dollar deal for a linebacker, the first 20 million per year for a linebacker, and the highest guarantees ever for the position. He would basically be resetting the market completely at the position.
Why this deal is easy
Darius Leonard is more than worth this deal on the surface, despite the hefty price for a position low on a positional value chart. When you think of all the big plays in recent Colts’ history, Leonard seems to be at the center of it all. Remember back in 2018 against the Oakland Raiders when he punched the ball out of running back Doug Martin’s hands to essentially give the Colts the win?
Randomly remembering this incredible play from Darius Leonard's rookie season: pic.twitter.com/3KS0zEqXSb— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) March 20, 2021
In even more recent memory, what about the game against the Texans from this past year? The Colts were up seven with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Texans completed a pass at the two yard line and guess who came from behind to force a fumble and win the game? Darius Leonard.
It even goes further than that too. On the field he is a great player but he is also the heart and soul of the locker room. Leonard brings and energy and intensity that is hard to replace. Just watch any of his mic’d up videos over the years and you will see why he has earned the title of “the Maniac.”
To even add another wrinkle to this, Leonard just launched his foundation this offseason. His foundation, Maniac Foundation, is a charity group that is based in Indianapolis. So Leonard is a star player, who has made a ton of game changing (season changing really) plays, and is a big voice in the community and gives back to the Indianapolis area. It seems like the easiest contract decision in sports history on the surface.
Why the Extension isn’t as Easy as it Seems
We know who Darius Leonard is as he enters his fourth year in the NFL. He is an aggressive, downhill WILL linebacker who makes plays on this defense. However, we are also at the point in his career where his shortcomings are more than minor issues to overlook. While there aren’t a ton of flaws in his game— we are talking about one of the best linebackers in the league here— we do have to acknowledge some things that hold him back on the field.
One reason that may give a team like the Colts at least a little pause on a monster contract for Leonard is the position he plays. The WILL position isn’t as important to a defense as, say, the MIKE position that calls plays and directs traffic up front. Leonard has never called plays for the Colts’ defense in his career, a task that was given to Anthony Walker and will be passed on to Bobby Okereke this next season.
Now, that isn’t a huge concern in a vacuum but when looking at linebacker contracts around the league, WILL backers do get paid less than MIKE backers. The top paid linebacker in football, Bobby Wagner, is a MIKE for the Seahawks’ defense. In fact, of the top 10 paid off ball linebackers in the NFL at this moment, only two of which are WILL linebackers (Myles Jack and Cory Littleton). Obviously this isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but it is something to keep in mind in terms of positional value.
Then comes the point about Darius Leonard’s struggles in coverage. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 29th best cover linebacker in the league this past year. While that isn’t terrible by any means, you would like the highest paid off ball linebacker in football to be higher up in this vital category. To add even more stats for context, Leonard ranked 30th among linebackers in passer rating allowed in coverage (106.0), 25th in yards allowed (468), 28th in receptions allowed (50), and had the 6th worst completion percentage allowed in coverage (86.2% completion percentage allowed).
The film is a bit more generous than Pro Football Focus’ grades, but he has some issues in zone that do hurt the Colts’ defense. The biggest flaw in Leonard’s game is actually due to his always attack play style. In an interview during his record breaking rookie season, Leonard mentioned that he stopped watching so much film so he could play faster come game day. I think that helped him in a lot of ways but it also comes back to bite him in zone coverage. He is always in attack mode and as a result, he struggles to understand his zone integrity and is too often caught out of position and vacating his zone.
When watching the top cover linebackers in the league, like Fred Warner for instance, you can see a stark difference in how they play compared to Leonard. A big reason is the understanding of route concepts. A perfect example to illustrate this point is actually a play from Bobby Okereke this past season. Notice how Okereke sits on the underneath route— and maintains that zone integrity— but also recognizes the high low concept and nearly jumps the throw behind him.
Bobby Okereke is great in coverage. He has excellent vision in his zones and his length makes it very hard for opposing QB's to attack behind him. This would be a pick if he wasn't wearing the club on his left hand: pic.twitter.com/V3yHVeWjK8— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) October 19, 2020
Okereke is able to find success in coverage here because he knows what is happening behind him and is playing from that position of knowledge within his zone. Now compare that to Leonard in coverage, who has to have everything in front of him. When Leonard is able to stay in short to intermediate zones with everything in front of him, he is able fly downhill and play to his style. When the routes are developing behind him however, he struggles to diagnose what is going on and gives up some easy completions over the middle. This is one of the reasons why the Colts get attacked relentlessly over the middle in games against top offenses.
His aggressive style of play also comes back to bite the Colts a bit in the play-action game. Teams who utilize the play-action pass in their offense— like the Titans for instance— know they can attack Leonard with backside leaks because he will over commit to the run game. He is a pure downhill, attack player who struggles to sit back and read the play.
The easy solution to all this could be to get Leonard to slow it down a bit and play more controlled while working on his ability in zone. The thing with that is, the Colts don’t want him to play any different. In fact, they highly encourage his type of play. This is evident by how often Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus utilizes Leonard on blitzes, particularly by having him mug the A gap and simulating pressure. That attack style is vital in this defense and the Colts don’t want him to play any different. However, when it comes to making him the highest paid linebacker in the league, it makes things a bit tricky when you know you aren’t getting a top cover player in a passing league.
DC Matt Eberflus needs more credit for dialing up this play that got Darius Leonard a pick six against the Bucs. This is just knowing the type of QB you are facing and giving him a very difficult read. All out blitz with Leonard dropping right into the hot route's zone: pic.twitter.com/AOr7wr0Gj4— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) July 24, 2020
So... What Now?
I know that most of you reading this are ready to kill me in the comments for saying anything negative about your favorite All-Pro linebacker. The fine line that I am trying to tip-toe in this piece is that Darius Leonard is an incredible player on this Colts’ defense but it is tricky to pay a non pass rushing defender that much money when there are some notable flaws in his game.
Leonard is the perfect fit in the Colts’ defense however, would he be a great fit for other teams? He wouldn’t be nearly the same player if he were shifted to MIKE and forced to think more and play back a bit in his game. He could probably be a successful WILL in other schemes but the way the Colts use him as a blitzer and in aggressive short zones (and spies) really maximizes his ability. So, then the question arises on whether the Colts’ should pay him 20 million a season when other teams likely wouldn’t give him that much.
It is a fascinating development that I don’t feel like has a true “correct” answer to. I will say though that ultimately, the Colts will have to pay Leonard that record breaking deal. I can sit here and talk about on field critiques all I want and bring up some reasons not to pay but the simple fact of the matter is that Darius Leonard is the Indianapolis Colts. For how much he does for this team and the community, the Colts have to pay him his worth and I have no objections to that in any way.
My main point of this article is to look at the fascinating negotiations that are going to happen with this deal. Leonard’s side will ask for the record breaking deal (most likely) and have every right to do so with Leonard’s pedigree. The Colts will likely look at some of the negatives I listed here in this article before making a decision. Leonard will ultimately get his record deal from the Colts, but it is such an interesting contract dilemma that will reset the market for all off ball linebackers.