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Rookie contract hero: The secret weapon the Colts need for their rebuild

17 tackles against the Bills. God save the rest of the AFC South.

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts’ rebuild has been a slow, painful, and unsteady process. First, Indianapolis had to watch a perfectly good AFC South champion starve to death under the distracted eye of former general manager Ryan Grigson, whose approach to drafting and free agency was as successful and nuanced as a jog through a minefield. Andrew Luck, straining like a pirate’s surviving retina, finally collapsed under the pressure in 2016, leading to 2017’s hollowing-out and 2018’s quicksand-sturdy 2-5 record.

That left current GM Chris Ballard to pick up the pieces, and while 2018 won’t be the end of the Colts’ rebuild, he’s already working from a stronger foundation than where he started. A big part of that equation is the long-awaited return and slow improvement of Luck. But flying under the radar is a standout linebacker from South Carolina State who has emerged as the backbone of a young roster that’s playing its best defense since 2014.

Ballard’s pre-draft trade with the New York Jets helped land the Colts four second-round draft picks last spring, giving them plenty of material to fuel their rebuild — and the latitude to take some chances on high-risk, high-reward prospects. At the top of their list was Darius Leonard, a do-everything linebacker who lit up FCS competition. And while he came into the league surrounded by questions, he’s spent the first half of his rookie year answering every one of them.

So who is the FCS star who’s been tagged with rebuilding the Colts defense? And how much money is he going to save a rebuilding franchise over the next two to three seasons?

Darius Leonard took the broken road to the NFL

Leonard wasn’t a hot enough high school prospect in Lake View, South Carolina to follow his half-brother, former Chargers third-round pick Anthony Waters, to Clemson. His lack of FBS offers led him to not even be included among the 70 Palmetto State prospects to earn official ratings from 247Sports in 2013.

But the chip that snub left on his shoulder motivated him to become one of the NCAA’s most disruptive players. In five years with the Bulldogs, Leonard bulked up from 190 pounds to 235, developing into a tackling machine in the process. The rangy linebacker recorded 238 tackles (26.5 for loss) as an upperclassman to win MEAC Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2016 and 2017.

That gave him some impressive bonafides, but they came not only against FCS opponents, but in one of the FCS’s least potent conferences. That resume, as impressive as it would have been, would have damned him to a Day 3 pick — until the pre-draft process pumped him up like a penny stock. First he shined at the Senior Bowl, proving he could hang with more athletic players while providing a sideline-to-sideline presence. Then he put together a solid, if limited, showing at the Combine and at SC State’s Pro Day to solidify his status as a prized pick.

That led him to the second round, where Indianapolis thought enough of Leonard (and was concerned enough about other teams snapping him up) to make him the first of their four second-round picks. The FCS All-American was the fifth linebacker off the board. Through seven weeks of the season, he’s had more sacks than those four players — Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch, and Rashaan Evans — combined.

Leonard’s do-everything game has translated to the NFL beautifully

Leonard immediately found a starting role in a Colts’ 3-4 defense that had been ravaged by departures after 2017. He stepped into the weakside linebacker spot vacated by current Steeler Jon Bostic, took a week to acclimate himself, and then wrought hell upon Washington in Indianapolis’ biggest win of the season so far:

On his 19 (NINETEEN) tackles that Sunday, Leonard tackled:

  • tailback Adrian Peterson on a route out of the backfield
  • deep threat Paul Richardson on a short route over the middle
  • tailback Chris Thompson on an off-tackle carry
  • tight end Jordan Reed on a short route
  • slot receiver Jamison Crowder, near the sideline, with a fumble-creating strip (later overturned, but still)
  • Peterson on an off-tackle carry
  • quarterback Alex Smith, untouched, on a blitz up the middle
  • Jordan Reed over the middle with a fumble-creating strip (upheld this time)
  • and 11 more tackles.

This is all to say, Leonard did work all over the field and showed off the versatility of a player who can stop anything opponents throw his way. He played all 74 defensive snaps of the game and was a factor in finishing more than a quarter of them. Yards-after-catch were not a thing with Leonard patrolling the middle of the field.

We saw this talent flare up in a big way last week as well, albeit against a lesser opponent. Leonard was the dam that held back the Bills’ waning trickle of offense in Week 7. He had six tackles on Buffalo’s 23 first half plays, including a backfield stop of Chris Ivory and a fumble recovery that left Derek Anderson to settle for this poorly plotted horror movie of a drive chart in a game that was over by halftime:

So, in Indianapolis’ two wins this fall — games where it allowed nine points or fewer — Leonard’s played nearly every available snap on defense. And the Colts have suffered when he’s been sidelined. An ankle injury prevented him from playing in a Week 5 tilt against the Patriots — a game that saw Indianapolis give up a season-high 38 points and a season-worst 6.5 yards per play.

Leonard’s impact has been significant through just six games as a pro. And he just turned 23, so he’s probably going to get better.

What’s Leonard going to cost the Colts in 2021?

It’s been a long time since the Colts had a homegrown, defensive bellwether to build around. Players like Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, and Robert Mathis all provided a much-needed counterbalance to some legendary offenses during Peyton Manning’s heyday. History tells us Indianapolis doesn’t let its homegrown defensive stars leave — at least until they’re on the wrong side of 30.

All three of those stars were drafted by the Colts and signed to lucrative extensions at varying stages before they could truly hit the open market.

The Colts have cut it close in the past, but are not stupid enough to let young defensive stars walk away in their primes. Leonard’s situation should be different, since those deals came from a franchise that was an annual Super Bowl contender and often strapped for salary cap space. The 2018 version of the team doesn’t have either problem — and might not for a couple years. That will give Ballard and team owner Jim Irsay the latitude to spark an extension before the dynamic linebacker enters the final year of his rookie contract in 2021.

So what’s he going to be worth? It’s still tremendously early in his career, but if he can keep up this pace and avoid major injury, he’ll be paid like an elite inside linebacker. The veteran players who’ve had an impact like Leonard’s (either now or in years past) include guys like Kiko Alonso, Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, Jamie Collins, and Benardrick McKinney. While these sideline-to-sideline stalwarts don’t get paid like pass-rushing OLBs, the top-five players at the position make an average salary of approximately $9.5 million.

Extrapolated over three years with a $500k bump per year — assuming Leonard signs a contract extension sometime between the end of the 2020 season but before his 2021 contract year can begin — that comes out to a $25 million difference between what Leonard is worth and how much he’ll actually cost. That’s the kind of savings that can continue Ballard’s roster building with some high-profile free agent help.

When it’s time to pay Leonard his due, the Colts are likely looking at something in the four year, $48 million range with $25 million guaranteed (the typical major ILB contract features ~52% of guarantees). That’s not quite Kuechly money, but Leonard’s also not a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. At least not yet. If he does find his way to that tier, his prospects would improve to something along the lines of five years and $75 million, with $38 million locked in.

That’s a hefty price tag for a player who probably won’t notch double-digit sacks in a season, but Leonard’s ability to provide support against the run and pass gives the rest of the Indianapolis defense a base from which they can operate. Good teams use a player like Leonard to paper over the deficiencies elsewhere in their defense, and paying a great inside linebacker can allow a club to pay a little less elsewhere on the depth chart.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 7:

Kerryon Johnson, RB, Lions (158 rush yards vs. Dolphins)

Marlon Mack, RB, Colts (126 rush yards vs. Bills)

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs (4 TD passes vs. Bengals)

Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants (167 receiving yards vs. Falcons)

C.J. Mosley, LB, Ravens (16 tackles vs. Saints)

Cory Littleton, LB, Rams (2 sacks vs. 49ers)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas

Week 2: Matt Breida

Week 3: Myles Garrett

Week 4: Patrick Mahomes II, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt

Week 5: T.J. Watt

Week 6: Saquon Barkley