INDIANAPOLIS — By now, Indianapolis Colts third-year linebacker Darius Leonard is practically a household name for NFL fans.
Two All-Pro nods. A Pro Bowl. The NFL's tackle king as a rookie in 2018.
But did you know that Leonard is not only one of the best linebackers in the NFL, but he's specifically one of the league's best defenders in coverage, regardless of position?
Nick Shook of NFL.com recently broke down the NFL's 10 best defenders in coverage based on the passer rating they allow, the catch rate allowed below expectation, the percentage of tight-window throws that are completed, the rate at which they're targeted and the average yards of separation that the offensive player gets from them. A couple of metrics referred to as the "ballhawk rate" and the "coverage-success rate" are also considered as supplemental measures.
Leonard rounded out the list at No. 10, but he was the only linebacker on the list, joining four cornerbacks and five safeties. Shook writes:
10. Darius Leonard
Passer rating allowed: 58.6
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -3.9
Tight window pct: 27.5
Target rate: 15.6
Average separation yards: 4.7
Leonard's numbers look a bit different than those of the other players featured here because he's covering from a linebacker spot, not as a defensive back on the perimeter or in the slot. Leonard's task is arguably more difficult, as he's expected to consistently stop the run and also cover all types of targets -- receivers, running backs and tight ends -- while carrying a larger body around the field.
Having said that, Leonard is a machine. His five interceptions led all linebackers, his 58.6 passer rating allowed as the nearest defender in coverage was also the best mark among LBs and he finished with seven passes defensed. We can't forget his pick-six of Jameis Winston in Tampa, either. The fact he landed on this list goes to show just how good a player Leonard is.
Linebackers often get recognized as run-stuffers, but in the modern NFL, guys like Leonard who can make plays in the passing game as well have become the prototype.
They're light, but they're long and as fast as safeties. They move very well in the open field, flying sideline-to-sideline, and they can make plays all over the field.
We've seen Leonard pick up high-level receivers and tight ends in coverage, and even go man-on-man with them from the slot. It's safe to say that the Colts trust him with pretty much any task, and he performs it at a high level.
Leonard may just be the king of these new-age linebackers.
In 437 snaps in coverage in 2019, Leonard was targeted 74 times, allowing 59 receptions (79.7 percent) for 559 yards (9.5 avg.) and two touchdowns. He allowed 313 yards (5.3 avg.) after the catch, and intercepted five passes (returning one of them for a touchdown) and allowed a passer rating of 79.0.
Leonard's interceptions and passer rating allowed were both the best marks in the NFL for off-ball linebackers.
According to Pro Football Focus, Leonard earned the No. 14 grade in coverage from linebackers (71.4). The discrepancy between PFF's grades and NFL.com's rankings could be related to the fact that Leonard did "give up" a lot of receptions (seventh-most among off-ball linebackers), but that's how the Colts' 4-3 defense works: they can allow short completions, but limit deep shots and the yardage picked up after receptions.
If you include pass-rushing in Leonard's effectiveness in coverage — which, why not? It's a part of pass defense — then that sends him into the stratosphere.
Leonard earned PFF's third-best pass-rush score among off-ball linebackers with a 78.4, and he registered 5.0 sacks in 2019, which were among the best marks for off-ball linebackers. His 13.3 pass-rush productivity score — which "combines sacks, hits and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer," according to PFF — ranked second.
Overall, Leonard started in all 13 games in which he appeared, totaling 121 tackles (seven for loss), 5.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, five interceptions, seven pass breakups and one defensive touchdown.
He was PFF's No. 6 linebacker overall (79.2), ranking second in tackling (88.8) and No. 9 against the run (78.8).