Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard Make ESPN's 'Top 25 Under 25' List; Malik Hooker, Braden Smith, Marlon Mack Honorable Mention

Indianapolis Colts second-year players Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard recently made ESPN's list of the top 25 NFL players under the age of 25. Also making the 'Honorable Mention' section were fellow Colts players Malik Hooker, Braden Smith and Marlon Mack.

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INDIANAPOLIS The Indianapolis Colts have received a lot of praise for their recent NFL Draft selections. Even better than receiving that recognition in the first place is knowing that those players are still paying dividends for the team.

Recently, ESPN's Mike Clay put out his list of the league's top 25 players under the age of 25, and it had some significant Indianapolis Colts flavor to it.

To qualify for the list, the player must not have turned 25 before Nov. 18, and all of ESPN's statistics listed are through Week 10 of the 2019 regular season.

Let's take a look at which Colts stars ESPN considering to be among the league's bright, young players.

5. Quenton Nelson, G, Indianapolis Colts

"Turns 25: March 19, 2021

Signed through: 2022*

The lone offensive lineman on our list, Nelson has been the driving force for the emergence of the Colts' line as one of the league's best units. The Notre Dame product has been on the field for all but one of Indianapolis' offensive snaps since he was selected with the sixth pick of the 2018 draft. His 94.1% pass block win rate ranked 11th among guards during his rookie season and sits at 93.7% (11th best) this season.

Nelson was named to the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro during an outstanding rookie season, and he's on track for significantly more award recognition over the next decade."

It's not always sexy to pick an interior offensive lineman early in the draft, but the Colts hit it out of the park when they took Nelson with the sixth-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Nelson made the Pro Bowl and was named a First-Team All-Pro as a rookie, and he is essentially the only offensive lineman of which fans across the league make weekly highlight mixtapes. They say the best ability is availability; well, Nelson has been available for 1,903 snaps out of a possible 1,904, only missing the one due to a required substitution after Nelson had his first-career carry last Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Nelson is currently the second-rated guard in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (91.6 grade), and he is a fixture on their weekly "Teams of the Week" and near the top of their weekly positional grades. This season, has has allowed just 15 total quarterback pressures (zero sacks, one quarterback hit, 14 hurries) and has been penalized just once. Nelson is one of only five guards to allow no sacks and 15 or less pressures to this point of the season, and he has the fewest penalties of all of them.

How good of a football player is Nelson? The Colts lined him up at fullback in the I-formation on the goal line twice this season, once sending him on a pass route into the end zone, and the other time giving him a handoff where he was stopped just short of the end zone. At least we'll always have this celebration.

10. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

"Turns 25: July 27, 2020

Signed through: 2021

Chris Ballard has crushed it since taking over as the Colts' general manager after the 2016 season, and one of his best finds was Leonard with the 36th overall pick of the 2018 draft. Leonard immediately stepped in as a full-time player and went on to lead the NFL in tackles while also racking up seven sacks, which was the most by an off-ball linebacker. He was not only the Defensive Rookie of the Year but also a first-team All Pro.

Injuries have limited Leonard to six games in his sophomore season, but he has remained a force with 60 tackles (fourth most in the league during those six weeks), three sacks and two interceptions. Leonard has played at least 98% of the Colts' defensive snaps during all but one of his 22 games. Now back in full from the injury, Leonard is locked in as the long-term quarterback of the Colts' defense."

Leonard is arguably Colts general manager Chris Ballard's best find to date, taking the small-school prospect early in the second round of the 2018 draft. Along with Nelson, Leonard became a First-Team All-Pro as a rookie, the pair becoming the first pair to do so since 1965.

Leonard earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after becoming the first rookie since Luke Kuechly in 2012 to lead the NFL in tackles (163) and also becoming the first player in NFL history to record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions (according to Pro-Football-Reference.com). His tackle mark also set the Colts' new franchise single-season record.

"The Maniac" had an incredibly decorated rookie season, also earning NFL Rookie of the Week twice (Weeks 2, 8), AFC Defensive Player of the Week twice (Weeks 2, 17), AFC Defensive Player of the Month (December), NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month (September), All-AFC Team (PFWA), and All-Rookie Team (PFWA) recognition.

Although he missed three games with a concussion, Leonard is having yet another excellent season in 2019. He is first on the Colts with 71 total tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions (tied), is second on the team with three sacks, and tied for third with four tackles for loss.

According to PFF, Leonard ranks ninth among all linebackers in tackling (78.5), eighth in pass rushing (76.0) and seventh in run defense (76.6). He is also one of just seven linebackers who have four or fewer missed tackles, and has fifth-most solo tackles among the bunch (48).

Honorable Mentions

S Malik Hooker

Known as a ballhawk coming into the league, Hooker has shown that trait, but he's also clearly developed as a defender. He has become tougher and more aggressive in his third season, which shows a level of comfort.

Although he has just one interception this season (and a spectacular one, at that), Hooker is quietly having an excellent season. PFF ranks him as the league's fifth safety with an 81.6 grade. He missed three games with a knee injury, but has 33 tackles (one for loss) and two pass breakups to go with his pick. He is also on pace to set a new career high in tackles.

Possibly the most telling thing is that Hooker is once again not being tested much downfield by opposing quarterbacks. He has been targeted eight times in the passing game, allowing just four receptions (50 percent) for 30 yards. Quarterbacks throwing at Hooker have a passer rating of just 19.8, which is the lowest in the league among safeties.

OT Braden Smith

In his first full season as an offensive tackle, Smith ranks as PFF's 11th overall tackle (75.0). He has been a reliable presence, playing all 768 of the Colts' offensive snaps. He continues working on his pass blocking, with a grade of 64.1 in that category, but has been a high-quality run blocker, ranking fourth in the NFL among tackles (82.3).

With Smith holding down the right side of the line, the Colts have done very well on the ground in 2019. They rank third in the league at 144.2 yards per game, with eight 100-yard rushing performances in 11 games. That includes five games with at least 150 yards, four with at least 175 and two with at least 200.

RB Marlon Mack

Mack has developed finely in his third season, beginning his career in 2017 as a raw rookie who was able to learn behind the legendary Frank Gore. Since then, Mack has become a quality runner between the tackles, and his patience and willingness to follow his blocks as well as improvements as a pass protector and receiver have turned him into a true three-down back.

Mack is in the middle of a career season, currently ranking second in the NFL in first downs converted on runs (52), tied for fourth in runs of 10-plus yards (23) and 20-plus yards (7), fifth in rushing yards (862) and rushing yards per game (86.2), sixth in carries per game (19.2), tied for ninth in avoided tackles (32), and 10th in yards per carry (4.5) — all despite missing Week 12 with a hand injury.

Mack has twice earned the NFL's FedEx Ground Player of the Week honor in 2019 after standout rushing performances, running for a career-high 174 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, and then 109 yards and a touchdown in essentially a half of football in Week 11. The injury is expected to keep Mack out for a little while, but before it he was on pace to smash many of his single-season career bests.

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