Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard Make NFL.com’s 'All-Analytics Team'

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INDIANAPOLIS — Welcome back, everyone.

I’ve lost count of how many lists and “All-Something or Other” teams that Indianapolis Colts second-year players Darius Leonard and Quenton Nelson have been on, but the pair has been honored once again.

Coming up with a unique angle, NFL Network Analytics Expert Cynthia Frelund has released her All-Analytics Team. She explains here what qualifies players to make it:

Now that the 2018 season is firmly a part of my historical reference model, I went back and took a look at each player's individual contribution metric. This is a numerical value I have created that adds (or subtracts) each player's impact on their team's ability to win games, for every snap. The goal is to better understand player value by capturing production in context, such as down and distance, score and time, type of play that was called and opponent faced.

Undertaking a big contribution-metric deep dive of several historical seasons (I look at 10 seasons, six seasons, three seasons and one season in a weighted algorithm) is also how I start to build team and player projection models for the upcoming season. Finding and applying the most predictive past trends and trajectories for players, position groups and sides of the ball in systems helps shape opportunities and expectations for the upcoming season.

Using her own metric to determine a player’s value to a team, Frelund has concluded that Leonard and Nelson are among the most valuable players at their respective positions in the entire NFL.

Considering the duo became the first rookie teammates to be named First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press since Pro Football Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears in 1965, it all checks out.

Left guard: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts. Let's talk more about preventing opponents from limiting rushing yards. When evaluating O-line play, it's impossible to know which play a coach has called and, thus, who was assigned to do what. But I can use computer vision to measure how many rushing yards were earned in areas along the line (as in, the gaps) and whether O-linemen near that rushing lane kept opposing defenders away. Running backs gained 2.5 yards more per rush in the areas Nelson was closest to in 2018 than average, which means the Colts rookie's mark is +2.5 yards, the best for any left guard last season. As for passing downs, Nelson was second best among left guards at limiting defenders from coming within five feet of his quarterback (achieved on 22.2% of passing downs). Nelson got better as the season went on and will be a big factor in my Andrew Luck stat projections for next season.

They say the best ability is availability, and the Colts got that out of Nelson as a rookie, as he was the only Colts offensive player to see all 1,136 snaps. For offensive linemen, there really aren’t many official statistics, but analytics people have found a way to measure their value.

According to Pro Football Focus, among guards who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, Nelson was one of only 25 players who allowed two or fewer sacks, and only one of 24 who allowed 23 or fewer total pressures.

Nelson’s protection of quarterback Andrew Luck was a big part in the Colts’ protection keeping Luck upright in general. The Colts allowed the fewest sacks in the league (18) and had the top sack rate (2.7 percent). They even went 239 consecutive passes attempts without allowing a sack  between Weeks 5-12.

As a run blocker, Nelson was even more nasty. As Frelund mentioned, running backs gained 2.5 yards more per carry than the league average when running near Nelson.

In total, the Colts’ run game was also arguably the best we’ve seen it in years. Including the playoffs, they had nine games with over 100 yards rushing, and three games over 200. They posted back-to-back 200-yard rushing games (Weeks 7-8) for the first time since 1985, and their 200 rushing yards against the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round (the first 100-yard game Houston allowed all year) is now the Colts’ franchise postseason record.

Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts. As the Defensive Rookie of the Year, Leonard logged 163 tackles (most in the NFL), seven sacks (most among linebackers) and the fourth most offensive-success stops (54; see Luke Kuechly's blurb) among linebackers. His season was especially impactful when you also consider the fact that none of the Colts' primary pass rushers ranked better than 26th in terms of total disruptions.

If we’re talking about value, then we’ve certainly seen it out of Leonard. The league’s reigning tackle king and Defensive Rookie of the Year missed the Colts’ Week 5 matchup against the New England Patriots, and things did not go well for the Colts in a 38-24 loss. Leonard dealt with an ankle injury for much of the season, and in the rare occasion when he was not on the field, the lack of his presence was evident.

Among linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, Leonard was one of only 29 players to miss nine or fewer tackles, according to PFF. Considering he led the league in tackles and was third with 56 stops — which PFF considers a tackle that constitute a "failure" for the offense — it’s even more impressive.

Leonard was out there doing things that have rarely ever been seen in the NFL, like being the first rookie since Luke Kuechly in 2012 to lead the NFL in tackles, or being only the second player to ever have at least 150 tackles and 7.0 sacks in a single season. Leonard has even done some things that have never been seen before, like being the only player to officially record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions (Pro-Football-Reference.com).

Value in the NFL can be watered down to simply how you help your team win games. An example is three huge, game-saving plays that Leonard had in 2018 that locked up wins for the Colts:

  • Week 2 @ the Washington Redskins — With the Colts leading, 21-9, with 5:00 remaining in the game, the Redskins had 1st & 10 on the Colts’ 29-yard line and were looking to make it a one-score game. Leonard narrowly stripped the ball out of tight end Jordan Reed’s grasp, causing a fumble that was recovered by the Colts. Washington only got one more drive in the game and turned the ball over on downs. Leonard finished the game with 19 tackles (one for loss), 1.0 sack, one forced fumble, one pass breakup and one quarterback hit.
  • Week 8 @ the Oakland Raiders — With the Colts leading, 35-28, with 5:17 remaining in the game, the Raiders had 1st & 10 on their own 25-yard line. Their offense was hot, scoring a touchdown on four of their last five true drives. Leonard showed a laser focus, punching the ball out of running back Doug Martin’s arm, with the fumble being recovered by the Colts. The Indy offense would then score the game-sealing touchdown on the ensuing drive, winning 42-28.
  • Week 17 @ the Tennessee Titans — In the final game of the NFL’s regular season on Sunday Night Football, the winner would claim the last remaining playoff spot in the AFC while the loser’s season would end. With the Colts leading, 33-17, with 2:00 remaining in the game, the Titans had 2nd & 16 on their own 28-yard line. A touchdown and two-point conversion on the drive would make it a one-score game. Tennessee quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw a short pass down the left side, but Leonard jumped the route, intercepting the ball and returning it inside the Titans’ 10-yard line. The Colts would then drop knees in the victory formation three times and punch their ticket to the postseason.

Under new coordinator Matt Eberflus, the Colts’ defense underwent a surprisingly quick turn-around — going from the 30th-ranked unit in 2017 (367.1 YPG) to 11th in 2018 (339.4 YPG) — and you could consider Leonard the linchpin.

The defense was surprisingly dominant against the run at times, finishing as one of only three teams (Texans and New Orleans Saints) to not allow a 100-yard rusher in the regular season despite facing five of the league’s top 10 rushers.

The Colts tied the NFL record for tackles for loss within the first four games of a season (31) since at least 1994, and had a league-leading four players with at least 12 tackles for loss.

Eberflus’ unit also became the final team for the season to force a turnover in every game, lasting 13 games, and forcing at least one turnover in a league-most 15-of-16 regular season games.

The opponent scoring was among the best in the league also, finishing 10th with 21.5 point per game allowed. In Week 15, the Colts handed the Dallas Cowboys their first shutout since 2003, and in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, held the Texans to just seven points; their lowest total of the season and the only time they were held to single digits.

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