INDIANAPOLIS — It was seven seasons ago that Luke Kuechly was able to lead the NFL in tackles and take home the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Will history repeat itself in 2018?
The man who could do it, Darius Leonard, wasn’t about to make any bold proclamations — not now, at least — when asked recently if he felt he should be the favorite for that award midway through the season.
“I’m not sure. I can’t really say,” Leonard told the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport on his “RapSheet and Friends” podcast. “I just go out each game and play like it’s my last and hopefully when the season is done the chips fall in my favor. I am just going to continue to do what I can do to put up the numbers.”
The numbers Leonard has been able to put up have been hard to ignore, though.
Leonard leads the NFL in tackles with 88, despite missing the team’s Week 5 game against the New England Patriots with an ankle injury. The next closest rookie in that category is the San Francisco 49ers’ Fred Warner, who has 73.
Leonard’s 4.0 sacks, meanwhile, are tied for second among all rookies, despite the fact he is typically sent on a blitz no more than a few times per game.
And Leonard’s three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries? First among all NFL rookies in both categories.
There are certainly other rookies having tremendous seasons, too. Bradley Chubb has 8.0 sacks; Donte Jackson (four interceptions), Jessie Bates (three interceptions, one for a touchdown), Derwin James (55 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one interception) and Denzel Ward (three interceptions) are holding down the secondary.
But nobody has made the overall impact that Leonard has been able to make through the first eight games of the season.
Not bad for a second-round pick out of an FCS school that has made a seamless transition to the NFL game.
“Coming from a small school I thought there would be some struggles at the beginning because everybody is bigger, faster and a little stronger,” Leonard told Rapoport.
Leonard’s production is not going unnoticed either.
Back in Week 2, he posted 19 tackles (15 solo), one sack, one forced fumble and one pass defensed in the Colts’ road victory over the Washington Redskins, and was voted as the AFC Defensive Player of the Week and the NFL’s Rookie of the Week.
Four games into the season, Leonard was named the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Month.
Two weeks ago, Leonard was a nominee for the Defensive Rookie of the Week once again after posting his fourth double-digit tackle performance of the season (17) in a win over the Buffalo Bills.
And last week, after another nine tackles and a critical forced fumble late in a victory over the Oakland Raiders, Leonard took home his second NFL Defensive Rookie of the Week award.
But all that considered, there’s a whole second half of the season in which Leonard needs to continue playing at a very high level to stay relevant in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race.
The worry for many rookies is whether or not they eventually hit that wall sometime during the final eight games of the season. Most college teams play no more than 12 or 13 games in a season, and advancing to a bowl game means even more time to rest and recover towards the end of the year.
That’s certainly not the case in the NFL, where players are expected to find another gear after getting to Week 12 to finish out the regular season strong. Oh, and then there’s the playoffs, where players need to turn that up even more.
Do you ever worry about how much these rookies, particularly Leonard, can give you the rest of the way?
“Yeah, I think you do with certain players. I don’t really worry about that with Darius,” Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said on Thursday. “I think he’s very mature for his age. I think the bye week came at a right spot, right in the middle so there was kind of a refresh, reload and a reset mentality certainly here in the building and certainly with him.
“So, I think that with him, no I really don’t (worry),” Eberflus continued. “I think his focus and his attention to detail has been outstanding. His practice on Monday was as fast as I’ve seen it and the same with Wednesday. He was as quick and as instinctive as I’ve seen him so far this year.”
Colts.com’s Nick Merlina contributed to this story.