INDIANAPOLIS – This is the next in a series taking a position-by-position look at the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
- Starters: WLB Darius Leonard, MLB Anthony Walker, SLB Bobby Okereke.
- Backups: Zaire Franklin, Matthew Adams, Skai Moore, E.J. Speed, Gerri Green, Brandon Wellington (R), Jordan Glasgow (R).
Anyone who’s been around Darius Leonard for, oh, 5 minutes, realizes he’s adept at using disrespect – real or imagined – as motivation. Draft analysts criticized Chris Ballard when he invested the 36th overall pick in the 2018 draft on a talented linebacker out of South Carolina State. Leonard proved worthy of the early selection by being named Defensive Rookie of the Year and selected first-team All-Pro, but took great exception when he wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl.
He’s always driven to doing more and further quieting whatever doubters remain. After year 2, Leonard was named second-team All-Pro and secured his first Pro Bowl berth. He’s the first player since at least 1982 to generate 10-plus sacks and five-plus interceptions in his first 25 games.
Yet the desire burns deep for more. His goals for 2020?
“Super Bowl MVP, league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year,’’ he said. “I wrote down maybe 15 goals last year and only met maybe three or four.
“That is unacceptable in my book. So have to write those same goals down and the ones I met, bump them up a little bit. Just strive to reach every goal that I have instead of three or four.’’
Then, another motivational tool was thrust into Leonard’s chest. When individual ratings were released for Madden NFL 21, the driving force behind the Colts’ defense was given an 85. That was tied for 3rd-best among Colts, trailing Quenton Nelson (94), DeForest Buckner (87) and T.Y. Hilton (87).
Leonard noticed, and wasn’t the least bit pleased.
“Some times in life you only need one person to doubt you, you know?’’ he posted on a Twitter video. “That’s where that dog mentality is. You’ve got to have something, just one person to doubt you. EA Sports gave me an 85 . . . this type of linebacker.
“Only thing I’m doing is grinding and prove them wrong, day-in and day-out because that what Maniac mentality do, baby. Let’s get it.’’
Leonard’s video went on to show him working out under the sun at his high school, Lake View in South Carolina.
Here’s where we remind everyone Leonard already has been grinding day-in and day out. In 28 regular-season games, he’s produced 284 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, seven interceptions and six forced fumbles. His 163 tackles as a rookie were a club record.
Strength in numbers
It’s easy for Leonard to dominate the room, but this room consists of quality and quantity. Taking any possible injuries out of the equation, and the ‘backers are as formidable a position as any on the depth chart.
Anthony Walker has established himself as a solid Mike. He settled in as the starter in 2018 and piled up 104 tackles, then bumped that to a team-high 123 tackles last season. If Leonard needs additional motivation, he trailed Walker by two tackles.
The untapped potential resides with Bobby Okereke. The 2019 third-round pick appeared in all 16 games, starting eight. He started twice at Mike when Walker filled in for the injured Leonard (concussion), but primarily worked at Sam. His rookie yield: 58 tackles, two tackles for loss, 1 sack.
Even though those stats are modest, the team is convinced Okereke has so much more to offer. That was clear when owner Jim Irsay spoke prior to the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
“I’m really excited about our football team,’’ he said. “Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, who we think can be a big-time player, Pro Bowl player.’’
“It’s exciting and it gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I have the belief in the organization with me,’’ Okereke said. “Even going from the draft and you watch the little Colts’ special right after they drafted me, seeing coach Reich’s excitement, seeing Chris Ballard’s excitement and then me being able to come on the field and produce last year just gives me a lot of confidence going into year 2.’’
Leonard is a fan.
“Bobby is a smart player,’’ he said. “He’s like a sponge. Once you tell him one thing or how to do something, he’s going to fix his mistakes. He’s going to be a great player and I think he’s going to make a lot of plays for us.’’
At issue is how coordinator Matt Eberflus uses his personnel in sub packages. Trust us, Leonard is not coming off the field. But when the Colts use two linebackers, either Walker or Okerere will be on the sideline.
“At the end of the year we kind of came up with a rotation with all three of us,’’ Walker said, “but at the end of the day we want to win. So whatever it is to help the team win we are going to do – all three guys.’’
It’s incumbent upon Walker to continue evolving. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
- Fact worth noting: This is the ultimate homegrown bunch. All 10 ‘backers entered the NFL as a Colt.
That includes eight draft picks: Leonard (round 2, 2018), Walker (round 5, ’17), Okereke (round 3, ’19), Matthew Adams (round 7, ’18), Zaire Franklin (round 7, ’18), E.J. Speed (round 5, ’19), Gerri Green (round 6, ’19) and Jordan Glasgow (round 7, ’20).
And that includes two players signed as undrafted rookies: Skai Moore (‘18) and Brandon Wellington (’20).
- Fact worth noting, Part 2: Leonard is in position to join elite company. He’s the first Colts linebacker selected to the Pro Bowl since D’Qwell Jackson in 2014 and just the third since 1988. Cato June was named in 2005.
The only other ‘backer selected in the Indy era: Duane Bickett in 1987.
But here’s the elite company we’re talking about.
Only two Colt ‘backers have been selected to multiple Pro Bowls: Mike Curtis (four) and Ted Hendricks (three).
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.