In a recent article for The Athletic, Ben Standig shared the opinion of various NFL agents on a variety of topics, including COVID-related season adjustments, Patrick Mahomes’ contract, and top NFL general managers. The agents’ top GM both for his trustworthiness and for his talent evaluation ability? Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard.
Ballard is one of the fastest-rising general managers in the NFL ranks over the last few seasons, and rightfully so. He’s pulled starters out of Day 3 of the draft, such as Marlon Mack and Anthony Walker, and hit home runs in recent early rounders like Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, and perhaps one of the greatest picks in the last three years, linebacker Darius Leonard.
Back-to-back All-Pros, including a First-Team spot in a rookie campaign, is about as good as a draft pick gets. That’s been the case with Leonard, who has statistically been perhaps the best linebacker in the NFL over the two years he’s played. His five-sack and five-INT season in 2019 was only ever done by two other linebackers in the 21st century: Brian Urlacher in 2007 and Lavonte David in 2013.
Watching Leonard’s sacks and INTs is helpful for us in understanding why he’s been so productive, and what that means for his future. First, we can check out his interceptions:
As with all standout statistical seasons, not every play is going to be born of overwhelming talent—luck plays a part in everything that happens on the football field. Leonard’s INT against the Texans and against the Dolphins were largely the product of other players’ successes or mistakes.
But Leonard’s zone drops and length are a huge part of his success in pass defense, where he’s one of the best young ‘backers in the NFL. In the Matt Eberflus split-field defense that plays more middle of the field open (MOFO) coverages than any team in the league, and with the amount of rotation that they do post-snap, Leonard is frequently sinking into short zones that the quarterback does not expect him to occupy post-snap. Consider his two interceptions on Jameis Winston.
Leonard’s length is a huge asset here, and it’s what allows him to break late on both of these throws but still reel in the interception. On the first, the Colts spin from two-high to one-high, and Leonard reads the slant/flat look from the weakside to widen into the throwing lane and undercut the pass. On the second, Leonard’s film study helps him expect the shallow drag from the single receiver side, and he bails from the blitz late to undercut the route. It’s worth noting here that most linebackers do not have the combination of agility and size that Leonard does, and he’s an imposing figure in short zones accordingly.
That’s also why he’s so gosh darn good at sacking the quarterback. Again, here are all of Leonard’s sacks from the 2019 season.
The Colts are one of the heaviest stunt teams in the NFL, and that opens them up nicely to second-level pressures to add to the confusion that their games create. On multiple pressures and sacks last year, Leonard was functionally a free rusher because of the chaos generated in front of him—but on many others, his presence in the box quickly turned into a QB spy or delayed rush role, which let him clean up the broken pockets generated by the Colts’ stunts and twists. Once again, we see quickness and length play a role here, as well as situational recognition, to steer Leonard to the quarterback and help him finish the rep.
Leonard is very, very good for the Colts—and the pick is made all the more interesting for the criticism it immediately received. I was very low on Leonard, as were other TDN scouts and other draft and national analysts. Coming out of South Carolina State, Leonard was certainly fast and certainly athletic and certainly long, and had his moments of quality play recognition—but even at the lower competition level, was an incomplete player with warts on his eval. Did those magically vanish?
Not really. There are still bad plays on Leonard’s film, which is great news for Colts’ fans—the dude can get better! But what matters here is more than the evaluation; it’s the fit. Leonard got five interceptions this past season in part because he’s such an athlete and such a smart player, but also because of how the Colts’ defense lets him roam free and play fast. Leonard got five sacks this past season in part because he’s such an athlete and such a smart player, but also because of how the Colts’ defense rushes their linebackers.
Leonard is a perfect fit for 4-3 WILL in an Eberflus defense. Without the games they run, he’d be more susceptible to catching climbers at the second level, where his lack of ideal density would be exposed. In a MOFC defense that recruited more man coverage, Leonard would not get the opportunity to read and react as freely as he does for the Colts’ more passive approach of dropping, rallying, and tackling—nor would he get the sneaky picks that he does with his smart zone drops.
This circles back to Ballard, and his understanding of personnel, skills, roles, and his coordinators. Leonard, more than anything else, fits what the Colts need at linebacker. He is a snug fit next to fellow starter Walker, a perfect mentor for his new understudy Bobby Okereke. Everything flows in the Colts’ linebacker room and defense as a whole. Everyone’s skills make sense next to one another and their responsibilities fit their strengths. Rookies don’t just make All-Pro teams because they’re that good; they have to be dropped in the right circumstances to succeed, to grow, and to thrive. More than any other linebacker from the 2018 class, Leonard is thriving. He’s built for the job he was given.