Thirty five players were drafted before the Colts took Darius Leonard in the 2018 NFL Draft, but few did more as a rookie.
And while there was a strong field of candidates, none of the defensive players had a bigger impact for a team that made greater strides than Leonard.
The Colts linebacker was named PFT’s defensive rookie of the year, after leading the league in tackles (163), and setting the Colts franchise record for stops in a season. He did that despite missing a game, and was the first rookie to lead the league in that category since Luke Kuechly in 2012.
Like Kuechly, he has the ability to raise the level of the others around him, as the Colts defense exceeded expectations by an incredible degree this season.
Leonard also had 12 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, for a defense that went from 30th in points and yards allowed last season to 10th in scoring and 11th in yards allowed this year.
Coupled with the contributions of first-round left guard Quenton Nelson and second-round right tackle Braden Smith, it’s part of a strong draft class for General Manager Chris Ballard, setting up the Colts for sustainable success.
This year was a solid year for rookie defenders, as Denver pass-rusher Bradley Chubb, Chargers safety Derwin James, Browns cornerback Denzel Ward, and Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch each made strong cases for themselves.