ATLANTA — It was hard to miss No. 53 flying all over the field throughout this past season for the Indianapolis Colts.
Whether he was racking up tackles at a record pace, or making game-changing plays by getting after the quarterback, poking the ball loose or deflecting and picking off passes in the secondary, Darius Leonard made quite the impact in his first NFL season.
Appropriately, Leonard on Saturday night was named the Associated Press' 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award winner, becoming the first Colts player to earn that honor in 33 years.
But when he got up on stage in Atlanta to accept the award at the annual NFL Honors ceremony, Leonard had others on his mind — those on and off the field who helped get him to that point.
Here's Leonard's full acceptance speech from Saturday night, followed by the notes and figures from his 2018 season:
"Man. My God is awesome, man. First of all, I'd like to thank Jim Irsay and the Colts organization for giving me the opportunity to play the game I love at the highest level. And I couldn't do it as a linebacker — you know you cannot run free without your defensive line, and my defensive line played amazing all year, getting me free and allowing me to run around and make plays. So I appreciate y'all boys for allowing me to do my job. And, you know, you've always got to have someone in your corner at all times, and you know, football is a very stressful sport at times, and I have a beautiful wife that's in my corner, and she's there every single day, through my long days, and she's my biggest motivation, and I just want to say thank you to her for actually being by my side since Day 1. I love you. … And I want to give a huge shoutout to my mom. Because, you know, growing up, she had nine kids, working two or three jobs and trying to make ends meet. So I would like to show her for showing me how to get things done. Thank you, NFL, for this great honor, and I appreciate it. Thank you."
Leonard is just the third player in team history to win the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, joining Vernon Maxwell (1983) and Duane Bickett (1985).
A rookie out of South Carolina State, Leonard becomes the first non-FBS conference player to win Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year honors since Hugh Douglas (Central State) in 1995. He is the first Defensive Rookie of the Year award winner to lead the league in tackles since Luke Kuechly in 2012. Leonard is also the first Defensive Rookie of Year winner that was drafted outside of the first round since DeMeco Ryans in 2006 (second round, 33rd overall).
In 2018, Leonard finished as the NFL's leading tackler (163) while adding 12.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, eight passes defensed, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He set the franchise record for tackles in a single season and his tackle total ranks third in league history for a rookie. Among rookies this past season, Leonard ranked in the top-10 in tackles (first), tackles for loss (second), sacks (second), passes defensed (ninth), interceptions (tied-seventh), forced fumbles (first) and fumble recoveries (tied-first). He became the first player to register at least 125 tackles, 7.0 sacks and four forced fumbles in a single season since Bryan Cox in 1992.
Leonard was named Associated Press First Team All-Pro this past season. He earned numerous other accolades, including AFC Defensive Player of the Month (December), AFC Defensive Player of the Week (Week 2, Week 17), Defensive Rookie of the Month (September) and NFL Rookie of the Week (Week 2, Week 8). From the Pro Football Writers of America, Leonard was selected Defensive Rookie of the Year and was named to the All-AFC and All-Rookie teams.