INDIANAPOLIS — It was about 6 p.m. Tuesday when Chris Ballard and Frank Reich delivered the news they didn’t want to be telling their star rookie linebacker.
Despite being one of the most productive defensive players in the entire National Football League, Darius Leonard learned, he was not selected to play for the AFC team in the 2019 Pro Bowl.
Leonard was selected as an alternate, which means he still has a shot at playing in the game if enough guys can’t go. But the second-round pick out of South Carolina State was disappointed to learn he wasn’t going to achieve one of the primary individual goals he set out for himself when he first arrived at the Colts’ facility in May.
On a scale from one to 10, with 10 being the most disappointed, Leonard said he was feeling about a “20” on Tuesday evening as the supportive — and incredulous — text messages, calls and tweets started pouring in.
“Just knowing that I put out everything I did on film and everything, and still (it’s) not enough,” Leonard told reporters about his reaction on Wednesday. “So I’ve just got to keep improving. If it’s not enough, then that means I’ve just got to keep doing more work.”
Truth is, it would really be difficult for any player — rookie or not — to do more work than Leonard has done to this point of the season.
Despite missing one game earlier in the year, Leonard’s 146 total tackles are the best in the NFL by more than 20; the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly is in second place with 124 stops.
And while Leonard’s primary job as the Colts’ WILL linebacker is to get to the ballcarrier and rack up the tackles, the rookie has been able to produce in other areas at a level no other defensive player can match this season — or in recent NFL history, for that matter.
Heading into Sunday’s Week 16 matchup against the New York Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium, Leonard has 90 solo tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one interception, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Leonard is also first in the league in solo tackles, and his four forced fumbles are tied for fourth in the NFL. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Leonard is one of three players in league history to record at least 140 tackles, seven sacks and one interception in a single season (Chad Brown, 1998; Lavonte David, 2013).
Leonard, a top candidate for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, also leads all rookies in tackles and forced fumbles, and is second in sacks and tackles for loss.
With all those high-impact plays, Reich said Wednesday he was among the many people “surprised” by Leonard’s exclusion from the Pro Bowl roster, which did include two Colts players in tight end Eric Ebron and guard Quenton Nelson.
Leonard was among five Colts Pro Bowl alternates, and was joined by defensive tackle/end Denico Autry, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, center Ryan Kelly and quarterback Andrew Luck.
But take this into account: Leonard did not end up earning a scholarship to his dream school, Clemson, and ended up playing at the only program — an FCS one at that — that ended up reaching out so late in the recruiting process. And then when he was selected 36th-overall by the Colts in this year’s NFL Draft, Leonard wasn’t immune to the noise from various “pundits” who considered the pick among the worst in the league.
At every step of his football career, Leonard has taken the doubters and proven them wrong.
“He has done well with that and he will continue to do well with that,” Reich said. “He is that kind of player. He has that kind of makeup. That is one of the things that makes him a great player. That has forged that in him to be the leader, to continually overcome that kind of thing and play with the chip on your shoulder (or) whatever you want to say it is. Whatever he has done to become the player he has, that has been part of his story and he has played it well.”
Accordingly, Leonard indicated he has some doubters to prove wrong once again the rest of this season.
While he earned the third-most fan votes at the “outside linebacker” position in the AFC this season (despite the fact he doesn’t play “outside linebacker”), it turns out it was Leonard’s fellow NFL players and coaches across the league that instead voted for the likes of the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller, the Houston Texans’ Jadeveon Clowney and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Dee Ford to represent the AFC at that spot.
To start? Leonard is shooting for 40 tackles this Sunday against the Giants.
One reporter told Leonard on Wednesday that would be impossible; after all, the NFL single-game record for tackles is 24. Leonard’s career-high is 19, set back in the Colts’ Week 2 victory over the Washington Redskins.
“Impossible? There’s nothing impossible,” Leonard answered. “If you play a lot of snaps, you just get on every play.”
Lofty or not, the fact Leonard even thinks he can rack up 40 tackles in a game is a huge reason why he’s been able to make this kind of impact so early on in his career.
And even if he does end up being a fill-in player on this year’s Pro Bowl roster, and even if he does earn many Pro Bowl selections the rest of the way, Leonard will never forget about the disappointing news delivered to him late Tuesday afternoon.
“It just is what it is,” Leonard said. “It’s adding more fuel to the fire. It’s giving me another reason to go out there and keep fighting.”