INDIANAPOLIS — After being named to the Professional Football Writers of America’s All-NFL and All-AFC Teams earlier in the day, Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard continued to earn recognition on Tuesday.
The PFWA then released its All-Rookie Team on Tuesday afternoon, which featured Nelson, Leonard and Colts tackle Braden Smith. Leonard was also named the PFWA's Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Colts led the entire NFL in All-Rookie selections with three.
DARIUS LEONARD: DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Despite not initially making the Pro Bowl cut, Leonard has had no shortage of awards and recognition thrown his way. Per the PFWA:
“Leonard, a second-round pick (No. 36 overall) out of South Carolina State, was second in the NFL in sacks by a rookie with seven, and he led the league in both total tackles (163) and solo stops (111). Leonard posted seven games with 10 or more tackles, which tied for the NFL lead in the category. His 163 total tackles were third all-time by a rookie since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He also led all rookies in forced fumbles, and tied for sixth overall in the NFL, with four. He was selected the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September and the AFC Defensive Player of the Week twice (Week 2, Week 17).”
Along with being named First-Team All-Pro as a rookie with Nelson, Leonard was twice named AFC Defensive Player of the Week (Weeks 2 and 17) as well as NFL Rookie of the Week (Weeks 2 and 8), was named Defensive Rookie of the Month (September) and AFC Defensive Player of the Month (December).
By season’s end, Leonard led all NFL defenders in tackles (163) and solo tackles (111), was third among all off-bill linebackers in tackles for loss (13) and second among all rookies in sacks (7.0). He also added four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions for good measure.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Leonard is the only player since at least 1982, when sacks became an official statistic, to record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions.
Leonard also ended the Colts’ postseason run as the NFL’s leading tackler in the playoffs, racking up 27 in two games, which is seven more than the next closest player.
QUENTON NELSON AND BRADEN SMITH: ALL-ROOKIE TEAM
Together, Leonard and Nelson became the first rookie teammates to be named First-Team All-Pro by The Associated Press since Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers for the Chicago Bears back in 1965. Nelson was also named to the Pro Bowl after repeatedly putting out highlight-worthy film of him pancaking defenders.
Of the Colts’ primary starting five offensive linemen, Nelson was the only one to both start all 16 games and play all 1,136 snaps. In that span, he allowed just three sacks, four quarterback hits and 17 hurries, which graded him out as the sixth-best guard in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. In October, he became the first interior offensive lineman to ever be named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month.
Smith became a full-time starter in Week 5, starting a total of 11-of-13 regular season games in which he appeared. In total, he played 853 snaps and allowed three sacks, six hits and 19 hurries. The original plan was for him to be the Colts' right guard of the future alongside Nelson, but he was thrown in at right tackle in a pinch due to injuries to other players, and he became too good to take out of that spot.
This week, Colts general manager Chris Ballard was asked about Smith during his end-of-season press conference.
“I love Quenton, and Quenton knows I love him, but the world was ignoring Braden Smith,” Ballard said. “Quenton Nelson is playing his tail off, but Braden Smith is playing good football too.”
Recently, Colts head coach Frank Reich called Smith “the best-kept secret” in the league.
With the help of Nelson and Smith, the Colts’ offensive line totally transformed in 2018. Not only did the Colts go from the most-sacked team in the league in 2017 (56) to the least-sacked in 2018 (18), but their run game was sometimes dominant. They had five games where they ran for at least 150 yards (200 in three of them) and running back Marlon Mack nearly ran for 1,000 yards despite missing some time earlier in the season.
It’s safe to say that behind these three budding stars, the Colts are in good hands moving forward.