INDIANAPOLIS — As a former FCS linebacker hailing from tiny Lake View, S.C., Darius Leonard had everything to prove as an NFL rookie in 2018.
After then leading the entire league in tackles and being named First-Team All-Pro, what didn't the young Indianapolis Colts star prove?
Leonard made such an impression on the NFL landscape that many already consider him among the best linebackers in the game.
"Well, this was a surprise. Selected in the second round out of South Carolina State, Leonard won the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award, was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in weeks 2 and 17, and was the AFC Defensive Player of the Month in December. From the start of his rookie season, Leonard proved to be a force multiplier in a Colts front seven in desperate need of one. He led the NFL in among linebackers with 141 solo tackles, 66 stops, five forced fumbles, and 110 targets. Among those targets, he allowed 93 receptions for 942 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. It was one of the most prolific seasons by a first-year linebacker in NFL history.
"At 6-2 and 234 pounds, Leonard is credited with 4.7 speed, but he's much faster on the field, and that's what really pops out when you watch his tape. He can cover sideline to sideline as a big safety would, but he tackles very much like an old-school linebacker. And his diagnostic abilities, which impress for a fifth-year player — never mind a rookie — allow him to be in the right place at the right time, nearly all the time. Leonard may have come out of nowhere in a relative sense, but nothing about his 2018 season was a fluke."
Leonard's rookie year was truly historic; not just for a rookie, but for any linebacker.
Along with teammate Quenton Nelson, the pair became the first rookie teammates to be named First-Team All-Pro since Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers did it with the Chicago Bears in 1965.
Leonard joined former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Broderick Thomas as the only players in NFL history to have at least 150 tackles and 7.0 sacks in a single season. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Leonard is the only player since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic, to record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions.
Leonard's 163 tackles not only set a new Colts single-season franchise record, but he also became the first rookie to lead the NFL in tackles since Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers in 2012.
"The Maniac" got off to a hot start to the season when he posted an eye-opening 19 tackles against the Washington Redskins in Week 2, which were the most by a Colts rookie since at least 1994, and the second-most in a single game in franchise history.
Along the way through his incredible season, Leonard racked up NFL Rookie of the Week twice, AFC Defensive Player of the Week twice, AFC Defensive Player of the Month once, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month once, was named to the PFWA's All-AFC and All-Rookie Teams and was also their Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Even though he seemed to garner a new honor every other week or so, Leonard was infamously left off of the AFC Pro Bowl squad — in part due to how linebackers are labeled on the ballot — which only grew the chip on Leonard's shoulder.
Around the NFL writer Marc Sessler recently released his list of players from each AFC team who should make the Pro Bowl for the first time next season, and Leonard was a layup:
"First-team All-Pro? Check. Defensive Rookie of the Year? Check. Pro Bowl selection? Oops. One of Earth's dimmer human events occurred last December, when Leonard was left in the cold by dazed-and-confused Pro Bowl voters. As an act of revenge, the rookie vowed to record 40 tackles against the Giants in Week 16. Leonard fell a tad short with nine stops against the G-Men, but still led the league with 163 tackles on the year -- 19 more than the next guy on the list. Adding seven sacks, two picks and four forced fumbles in Year 1, Leonard is a roaming force who can do it all."
The Pro Bowl would seem like a foregone conclusion for a guy with the list of accomplishments that Leonard has, but like Sessler indicates, maybe next year.