It was one hell of a rookie season for Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Darius Leonard. While he was snubbed from a Pro Bowl appearance, he was selected as a First Team All-Pro and ultimately ended up winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, solidifying himself as the best young coverage LB in football.
Leonard’s stats included 163 combined tackles and 111 solo tackles (leading all NFL players), seven sacks, eight quarterback hits, 12 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, two interceptions, and eight passes disrupted. It’s safe to say he did everything he could to establish himself as a force.
If you’re in an IDP league, Leonard should really stick out to you, as he led all defenders in fantasy points in FantasyData’s IDP statistics for 2018 with 212.3. That’s right, Aaron Donald finished second (199.35). Now, FantasyData’s… well… data… goes back to 2002, and Leonard is one of three rookies (DeMeco Ryans in 2006 and Patrick Willis in 2007) to lead a single season in IDP points. And wouldn’t you know it, Leonard finished with more IDP points than both Ryans (176.1) and Willis (185).
Much like Derwin James in Los Angeles, Darius Leonard’s sensational rookie season comes from his dominance in a wide number of ways, a testament to his versatility in Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme. Now the question I’m willing to bring to light is this: Should Leonard be your first defensive pick in an IDP league? Well, he did lead all individual defensive players in fantasy points in his rookie season, so this doesn’t sound like a hot take at all.
Leonard doesn’t just come up big in tackles, as he’s been used as a pass rusher an ample number of times for the Colts defense.
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I really enjoy Eberflus’ scheme because of how creative it is. His pass rush will attack you in a number of ways, and defensive backs like Kenny Moore are frequently involved on well-disguised blitzes. Leonard is no different, and can be used as a pass rusher in whatever gap you need him to go.
The above two plays are examples of Eberflus using Leonard as a blitzer in creative ways. In each of them (against Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson respectively), Leonard is deployed just before the ball is snapped, catching the quarterback(s) and the offensive line(s) completely off guard and allowing him to get two sacks (the officials blew both plays dead).
As a run stopper, you’d best believe Leonard is a wrecking ball, and I really love his approach to tackling the running back in both of these plays. You’ve probably heard all season long that stopping opponents from racking up yards matters much less than creating turnovers, and defenses like the Browns and Bears were outrageously good at creating those.
Leonard punches the ball out in both plays, but the second one is even more phenomenal. This is literally using a karate chop to knock the ball loose, and it’s probably my favorite highlight from the linebacker’s rookie season. The Colts get the ball back in this situation because of Leonard’s fantastic approach to the ball.
Now let’s get to the really fun part, where we highlight Leonard’s ability covering the pass.
Your eyes are correct. This is Darius Leonard on DeAndre Hopkins. Allow me to rephrase that: This is Darius Leonard winning against DeAndre Hopkins. He does a sensational job of undercutting Hopkins’ route, getting inside leverage and using his arm length to disrupt the pass, forcing an incompletion in the process.
Let’s get a replay:
Both Leonard and Hopkins combat in the hand battle here, and while at first it looks like Hopkins gets a free release, Leonard’s quick recovery time and athleticism save a potential touchdown. I have to say, I didn’t expect Leonard to even line up against Hopkins, let alone win against him.
What makes Leonard already one of the most dangerous coverage linebackers in the NFL is (big shock) his intelligence and attention to detail studying the quarterback’s processing of the field. Take this fourth and short against the Cowboys for example. In zone, he stays off the underneath receiver just a tad, giving the illusion that he’s expecting Dak Prescott to throw the ball elsewhere.
Really what he’s doing is baiting Prescott into throwing to a covered receiver. Leonard stays patient, and once the quarterback is in the process of releasing this pass, he springs into action, wisely batting the ball down and forcing a turnover on downs.
Leonard’s great instincts came into play once again in the week 17 “win or go home” matchup at Tennessee, where his interception on then Titans quarterback Blaine Gabbert clinched the Colts’ first playoff appearance since 2014. And like his pass breakup against the Cowboys, Leonard stays put and studies the quarterback, baiting him into a bad throw with a high risk-high reward decision.
Leonard undercuts the curl route, picking the ball off and assuring Indianapolis’ season would continue.
As linebackers are a huge commodity in IDP leagues, and since Darius Leonard is coming off an IDP leading rookie season, I would definitely say to take him with your first IDP pick, whenever that may be. His versatility, quick instincts, athleticism and dominance in every area allows him to rack up all sorts of stats and fantasy points, giving him mass appeal in both the fantasy and film circles.
He can be found on Twitter @Brickwallblitz.
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