INDIANAPOLIS — Now that the 2018 NFL regular season is through and the playoffs begin this weekend, award season is kicking off, and your Indianapolis Colts are in the thick of it.
On Friday, Pro Football Focus released its All-Rookie Team, and there are a few familiar faces on the list for fans of the Colts.
Making it are the team's first three selections in the 2018 NFL Draft: Quenton Nelson (first round, sixth overall) on the interior of the offensive line, Darius Leonard (second round, 36th overall) at linebacker and Braden Smith (second round, 37th overall) at offensive tackle.
Regarding Nelson, PFF said:
“One of the more impressive turnarounds in recent memory, the Colts offensive line went from complete liability to more than an adequate unit as Nelson and his counterpart on the All-Rookie team are largely to thank. Nelson was a stud in pass protection, leading the team in pass-blocking grade while allowing just 23 pressures on a whopping 730 pass-blocking snaps.”
The Colts put an emphasis on the trenches this offseason, and having the confidence to select an interior offensive lineman inside the top 10 of the draft has obviously paid off. Their line has blocked in the run game at a much higher level, and they allowed league bests in sacks (18) and sack rate (2.8 percent).
Individually, Nelson earned the top grade from PFF among all rookie offensive linemen (74.3). He was the sixth-highest-graded overall offensive guard overall and the second left guard.
Although picked after Nelson, Smith has done an admirable job himself, starting 12 games on the edge at right tackle as a rookie. Per PFF:
“Smith was integral in the rebuild of a Colts offensive line that allowed more than double the amount of sacks in 2017 (39) than they did in 2018 (16). On the season, Smith allowed 28 pressures over the course of 520 snaps in pass protection.”
Although drafted to be the Colts’ right guard of the future — making up an interior of Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Smith — circumstances shook out to where Smith’s first shot to start was at right tackle in Week 5. He was dependable enough to keep it going, improving throughout the season, and now his performance is earning him some recognition. Smith finished as the second-rated rookie offensive tackle, according to PFF, and the 27th tackle overall.
That early-season start for Smith was actually an important turning point for the Colts, as the following week was the first time that their optimal line formation of Anthony Castonzo, Nelson, Kelly, Mark Glowinski and Smith played together for the first time.
Not only a standout rookie, Leonard put together one of the best altogether resumés among any NFL defender in 2018. He earned First-Team All-Pro honors with Nelson, becoming the first rookie teammates to earn that feat since Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears in 1965.
“Leonard may have impressive tackle totals but he was also equally impressive when blitzing the passer, dropping in coverage as well as stopping ball carriers. As stated above, no matter which way you see the race between LVE (Leighton Vander Esch) and Leonard, the fact remains that they both have secured their place to stand at the top of the rookie class and even to be named among the best at their position across the league.”
What hasn’t been said about Leonard to this point? He’s been a constant highlight and point of emphasis for this Colts defense, helping against the run and the pass (even as a pass rusher). He became the face of the Colts' brand new defense and one of its primary leaders despite stepping into the NFL from a small school like South Carolina State University.
As a rookie, Leonard led the entire NFL in tackles (163) and solo tackles (111). The rookie linebacker also tied for sixth in forced fumbles (four), tied for seventh in fumble recoveries (two) and tied for 26th in tackles for loss (12).
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Leonard is the only player since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic, to record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions.
This week, Colts head coach Frank Reich reflected on the behind-the-scenes contributions of Leonard and Nelson and the leadership that they both have brought to the table.
“Yeah, I think I have said this before, but one of the things that Chris (Ballard) and his staff do when they are doing all the research on these guys and there are certain players and their draft cards, they are marked in a certain way where we would designate them or identify them as kind of Colts players," Reich said. "These are the kind of guys who have the DNA, the makeup of everything that we are looking for — all the intangibles, all the character qualities, everything about them. It’s a really hard filter to get through to get marked that way and both Quenton and Darius had that on their card. So that says something about their maturity and how fast we think they will develop.”