INDIANAPOLIS — Throughout the 2018 season and then shortly after the conclusion of the year, a few Indianapolis Colts rookies received quite a bit of praise for their efforts in their debut seasons.
Now, NFL.com is considering them some of the best overall young players in the league.
Around The NFL Writer Marc Sessler recently released his ‘All-Under-25 Team,’ naming the NFL’s top players under the age of 25. Making the list are a pair of First-Team All-Pros in linebacker Darius Leonard and left guard Quenton Nelson as well as right tackle Braden Smith.
LINEBACKER DARIUS LEONARD
“Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts (24 as of Sept. 5). The quickly ascending Colts strike again with another young game-changer in Leonard. The 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year hit the ground running with 10-plus tackles in a league-leading seven starts. The 6-foot-2, 234-pound seek-and-destroy droid rocked box-score nerdlings with a whopping 19 tackles (15 solo) against the Redskins in Week 2. Ridiculously snubbed as a Pro Bowl entry in December, Leonard vowed to notch 40 tackles against the Giants in Week 16. He fell short, but that changes nothing: The Colts have found the dictionary definition of a centerpiece on defense.”
Coming out of FCS South Carolina State, Leonard completely took the league by storm. Perhaps it was a bit of foreshadowing when he missed most of his rookie offseason with a quad injury but then intercepted quarterback Andrew Luck in spectacular fashion during his very first training camp practice.
“The Maniac” racked up awards all year, earning NFL Rookie of the Week twice, AFC Defensive Player of the Week, AFC Defensive Player of the Month and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month once each, was named to the PFWA’s All-AFC and All-Rookie Teams, was officially named First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press and then ultimately was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year by both the AP and PFWA… All that and he did not make the Pro Bowl.
Leonard was second in the NFL in sacks by a rookie with seven, and he led the league in both total tackles (163), which were third all-time by a rookie since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and solo stops (111). He became the first rookie to lead the league in tackles since Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2012. Leonard posted seven games with 10 or more tackles, which tied for the NFL lead in the category.
He also led all rookies in forced fumbles and tied for sixth overall in the NFL with four. Two of his forced fumbles essentially sealed victories for the Colts. To continue filling the stat sheet, Leonard finished third among all off-bill linebackers in tackles for loss (13) and added two interceptions.
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.
For good measure, Leonard also ended the Colts’ postseason run as the NFL’s leading tackler in the playoffs, racking up 27 in two games, which was seven more than the next closest player when the Colts were eliminated.
GUARD QUENTON NELSON
“Offensive guard: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts (23 as of Sept. 5). The Colts keep giving, with the presence of Nelson, who graded out as PFF's fourth-best run-blocking guard and anchored an Indy line that properly protected Andrew Luck for the first time in Earth's history. A nasty football lifer, Nelson would make any gridiron list around -- forget the age requirement.”
It’s not sexy to take an interior lineman as early as the sixth-overall pick in the draft, but it’s what the Colts did with Nelson in 2018, and there are no regrets. As Colts general manager Chris Ballard has said, if you have the chance to select a true impact player, it doesn’t matter what position they play.
Nelson was one of the highest-regarded offensive line prospects of the modern era, and he actually lived up to the hype.
He made clear progress each week of the season, even showing some of his trademark nastiness that made him such an eye-catching prospect to begin with. Despite that, new Colts senior offensive assistant Howard Mudd told reporters that Nelson still craves teaching, as he felt his fundamentals slipped throughout the season.
Nelson was named the Offensive Rookie of the Month for his performance in October — the first interior offensive lineman in league history to earn such honors.
Of the Colts’ primary starting five offensive linemen, Nelson was the only one to both start all 16 games and play all 1,136 snaps. In that span, he allowed just three sacks, four quarterback hits and 17 hurries, which graded him out as the sixth-best guard in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Nelson was a stud in pass protection, leading the team in pass-blocking grade while allowing just 23 pressures on a whopping 730 pass-blocking snaps.
Individually, Nelson earned the top grade from PFF among all rookie offensive linemen (74.3). He was the sixth-highest-graded overall offensive guard overall and the second left guard.
Like Leonard, Nelson was highly decorated by season’s end, his Rookie of the Month award being accompanied by a First-Team All-Pro nod from the AP, was named Second-Team All-Pro by PFF, and he made both the PFWA and PFF’s All-Rookie Team. Nelson did, however, make his first career Pro Bowl.
Together, Leonard and Nelson became the first rookie teammates to be named First-Team All-Pro by The Associated Press since Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers for the Chicago Bears back in 1965.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE BRADEN SMITH
"Offensive tackle: Braden Smith, Indianapolis Colts (23 as of Sept. 5). After dominating at Auburn as a road-grading guard, the versatile Smith finished his rookie season as PFF's 18th-ranked tackle. Colts general manager Chris Ballard told reporters Smith would be given this offseason to stay and grow at right tackle -- that's good enough for me.”
The less-heralded of the bunch, Smith isn’t lacking in his own supreme play.
Originally drafted to be the Colts’ right guard of the future, injuries shuffled the Colts’ offensive line configuration around, which put Smith at right tackle. The plans for him at right guard were quickly scrapped as he excelled at tackle and Mark Glowinski did the same at guard.
Smith got his first full start at right tackle against the New England Patriots in Week 5 on Thursday Night Football and never gave the job up. Overall, he started 11-of-13 regular season games in which he appeared. In total, he played 853 snaps and allowed three sacks, six hits and 19 hurries.
Smith has earned some high praise from the Colts’ decision-makers, with head coach Frank Reich even calling him the NFL’s “best-kept secret” at one point.
“I love Quenton, and Quenton knows I love him, but the world was ignoring Braden Smith,” Ballard told reporters at the end of the season. “Quenton Nelson is playing his tail off, but Braden Smith is playing good football too.”
You don’t have to take his bosses’ word for it, though; the numbers back it up.
Smith finished as the second-rated rookie offensive tackle according to PFF, and the third overall rookie offensive lineman behind Nelson and the San Francisco 49ers’ Mike McGlinchey. Smith was rated as the 27th NFL tackle overall which, out of 64 starting tackles in the league, that put him in the upper half.
Like his teammates Leonard and Nelson, Smith also made the PFWA and PFF’s All-Rookie Teams. The Colts led all NFL teams in PFWA All-Rookie selections with three.
The injection of Nelson and Smith into the Colts’ offensive line turned a unit that used to be a source of constant frustration into arguably the team’s biggest strength.
One of the line’s most impressive feats in 2018 came in pass protection. The Colts went 239 consecutive passes attempts without allowing a sack, which spanned from Weeks 5-12. The pass attempts and five consecutive games without a sack both rank as the third-longest streak in NFL history. The Colts went from the most-sacked team in the league in 2017 (56) to the least-sacked in 2018 (18, 2.7-percent sack rate).
The line was sometimes dominant in the run game as well. They had back-to-back 200-yard rushing games (Weeks 7-8) for the first time since 1985. Including the playoffs, they also had five games in which they ran for at least 150 yards (200 in three of them), and running back Marlon Mack nearly ran for 1,000 yards despite missing four games earlier in the season. The Colts' 200 rushing yards against the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round is now the franchise postseason record, and it was the first 100-yard rushing performance the Texans gave up to a running back all season.