INDIANAPOLIS — Darius Leonard has spent most of the season as the league's leading tackler, without even as much as a sniff from those chasing him.
The scary part? Leonard hasn't even played in all 13 of the Indianapolis Colts' games so far this season; he missed Indy's Week 5 matchup against the New England Patriots with an ankle injury.
So with such elite productivity week in and week out, it should come as no surprise that Leonard has a few records within sight.
Perhaps most noteworthy: he is currently on pace to threaten the NFL's rookie record for tackles.
At 135 tackles, Leonard has the most stops by a rookie in his first 12 career games since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, a figure that is seven more than No. 2 Patrick Willis (128 tackles through 12 games in 2007) and 10 more than No. 3 Kiko Alonso (125 tackles through 12 games in 2013).
Willis ended up finishing with an NFL rookie record 174 total tackles for the San Francisco 49ers back in 2007. Leonard — who, again, missed a game — is on pace for about 166 total tackles by season's end, so he'd have to average about 13 tackles a game over the Colts' final three games (or, about three more tackles than his current 10.4 average) to earn that all-time rookie record.
So what's the perspective here? Well, Leonard is currently considered one of three or four players in serious contention for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award. And of the four players to rack up at least 114 tackles in their first 12 career games, three of them — Willis, Luke Kuechly and DeMeco Ryans — were each eventually named the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The scary part? Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus thinks Leonard can get even better.
"He's been able to handle a lot of things and also be able to execute at a high rate," Eberflus said of Leonard. "So we are excited where he is and he just needs to keep getting the looks and just keep playing faster and faster and faster, and more physical and just making more plays. That's what he's there for."
Tackles have been the focal point of Leonard's game — for what it's worth, his 90 solo tackles are also the most in the NFL, and he also has 11 tackles for loss — but the South Carolina State product has also been able to affect opposing offenses in ways few other players around the league can, rookie or veteran.
One example: it's rare for a WILL linebacker to rack up a ton of sacks, just due to the very nature of their assignments and alignments. But Leonard on Sunday brought down Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson for his seventh sack of the season, a figure that is second among all NFL rookies. Bradley Chubb, taken No. 5 overall by the Denver Broncos solely to rush the passer, leads all rookies with 12 sacks.
Need other impact plays? Leonard has four forced fumbles; that ranks tied for fourth in the NFL and is the most among all rookies. For good measure, Leonard also has two fumble recoveries.
Oh, and Leonard can also make plays in coverage. He has knocked down four passes and picked off Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota back in Week 11.
It's the kind of impact Colts general manager Chris Ballard thought he could get out of Leonard when he took a chance on the FCS product with the 36th-overall pick in this year's NFL Draft, but because he spent much of the offseason workout program working off to the side with an injury, it took a while for the team to realize just what Leonard could bring to its defense.
Eberflus, who has been around a ton of talented linebackers during his lengthy coaching career, said he's never seen a player produce as a rookie at the level that Leonard has been able to this year.
"We certainly thought he had the attributes to do that (and) the physical traits to take that step and that leap. We have felt that all along," Eberflus said. "We just didn't know how fast the development would be there. That's really attributed to him. I mean he has accelerated his learning and (has) done a good job of picking up the package."
Eberflus said even though Leonard wasn't able to practice with the team during the offseason, he was putting in more than enough work so that when he did hit the field, he wouldn't have much of an adjustment.
That work has certainly paid off.
"When he first got here we had him early in the morning before everybody got here doing cone drills, alignment and assignment key technique stuff," Eberflus said of Leonard. "Me and Dave Borgonzi were doing that with him, then he would go to his treatment and all of those things and then he finally got in there during training camp.
"Yeah, so he has done a good job progressing."
By The Numbers
Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, Colts linebacker Darius Leonard has the most tackles by a rookie in his first 12 career games:
1. Darius Leonard, 2018 (135)
2. Patrick Willis*, 2007 (128)
3. Kiko Alonso, 2013 (125)
4t. Luke Kuechly*, 2012 (114)
4t. DeMeco Ryans*, 2006 (114)
* denotes player won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award