INDIANAPOLIS — NFL awards season is getting underway, and the Indianapolis Colts are one of the hot teams that appear to be in line for some hardware.
On Tuesday, the Professional Football Writers of America (PFWA) announced that Colts guard Quenton Nelson has been named to their All-NFL and All-AFC Teams, while linebacker Darius Leonard has been named to their All-AFC Team.
Recently, the Associated Press also named the pair First-Team All-Pro, being the first rookie teammates to earn that feat since Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers for the Chicago Bears in 1965.
Nelson very well may have exceeded expectations as the sixth-overall draft pick and someone considered by many to be the top interior offensive line prospect in years.
The rookie started all 16 games and played all 1,136 offensive snaps for the Colts, also earning Pro Bowl honors in the process. He was the first interior offensive lineman ever named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month after dominating his way through October.
By regular season's end, Nelson was the sixth-rated offensive guard in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, who gave him a grade of 74.3. Despite playing more than 1,100 snaps, Nelson was credited with allowing just two sacks, four quarterback hits and 17 quarterback hurries.
Nelson and the Colts' offensive line group, as a whole, saw improvements both in the run and pass game. On the ground, they racked up five games with at least 150 rushing yards. In terms of protecting the passer, they went from the most-sacked team last year (56) to the least this year (18).
Nelson became well known during the pre-draft process of 2018 for his highlight pancake blocks and clear domination over his opponents. Even though the level of competition was raised in the NFL tenfold, Nelson continued making those same eye-opening plays, planting perennial Pro Bowl players into the ground with regularity. For that, he became one of the most decorated rookies in the 2018 class.
ANOTHER HONOR FOR DARIUS LEONARD
Along with Nelson, Leonard may be the most accomplished rookie the Colts have had since quarterback Andrew Luck in 2012.
Initially overlooked by many out of the FCS school South Carolina State, Leonard, a second-round pick, led the entire NFL in both total (163) and solo tackles (111). He was also tied for sixth in forced fumbles (four), tied for seventh in fumble recoveries (two; three if you count his blocked kick recovery) and tied for 26th in tackles for loss (12).
Leonard is the only player since at least 1982, when sacks became an official statistic, to record a season with 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
The awards seemed to come in droves for Leonard throughout the season, compiling two AFC Defensive Player of the Week awards (Weeks 2 and 17), two NFL Rookie of the Weeks awards (Weeks 2 and 8), Defensive Rookie of the Month (September), AFC Defensive Player of the Month (December) and Associated Press First-Team All-Pro. All that and he was snubbed from the initial Pro Bowl voting (he was named an alternate, however).
In true Darius Leonard fashion, he didn't leave the 2018 NFL playoffs without going out on top in tackles, currently at 27 which is seven more than the next closest player.
Leonard and Nelson's maturity level and leadership qualities have been on display all year according to Colts head coach Frank Reich, and it's exactly what the Colts hoped hoped they would get from him when they picked them.
"Yeah, I think I have said this before, but one of the things that Chris (Ballard) and his staff do when they are doing all the research on these guys and there are certain players and their draft cards, they are marked in a certain way where we would designate them or identify them as kind of Colts players," Reich said. "These are the kind of guys who have the DNA, the makeup of everything that we are looking for — all the intangibles, all the character qualities, everything about them. It's a really hard filter to get through to get marked that way and both Quenton and Darius had that on their card. So that says something about their maturity and how fast we think they will develop."
For players like Nelson and Leonard, their attitude doesn't reflect that of a typical rookie's. Both players seemingly transformed how people viewed their position unit on the Colts from years past. No longer was the Colts' offensive line viewed as a push-over, and no longer was the Colts' defense considered slow and soft.
"I think in both cases they bring a lot of juice into the meeting room, into the weight room. They have infectious leadership qualities," Reich said. "Their love for the game, their love to compete at the highest level I just think is very infectious and you just love their confidence to be able to just let that loose."