It’s an achievement to be named the best inside linebacker in the league by any reputable NFL writer or reporter. But it’s even more meaningful to be mentioned as the best by one’s peers.
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard received that meaningful recognition from his peers Thursday. A list compiling opinions from NFL executives, coaches, scouts and players, generated by staff writer Jeremy Fowler of ESPN, voted Leonard the No. 1 inside linebacker in the NFL.
“He can flip the game at any moment,” a high-ranking AFC executive told Fowler. “That worries you more as an opponent than a traditional linebacker because he gets his hands on the ball all of the time.”
Leonard rose to No. 1 at inside linebacker on ESPN’s compiled best-of list from No. 4 last year. He sits at the top of his position despite undergoing back surgery on June 7.
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‘The Most Disruptive Linebacker’
There is no shortage of great inside linebackers in today’s NFL. While he’s begun to slow down at 32 years old, Bobby Wagner has been one of the best at the position for the last decade. Fred Warner and Devin White have developed into two of the best in the middle of their defenses too, and Micah Parsons ran away with the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
All were on the composite best inside linebackers list from ESPN.
But one veteran NFL defensive player told Fowler that Leonard causes the most trouble for opposing offenses.
“He’s already the most disruptive linebacker, and he can do things to clean up his technique and get even better,” a veteran NFL defensive player said to Fowler. “Sometimes, you’ll see him standing straight up before the ball is snapped instead of in a linebacker position and you’re like, ‘What?’ But then he takes the ball away and you’re like, ‘Oh, OK.'”
Leonard has made first-team All Pro three times in his four year career. He did so again last year despite playing at less than 100%. NFL staff writer Zak Keefer of The Athletic reported that Leonard’s left calf “wasn’t firing last year,” which led to his back surgery in June.
The inside linebacker also underwent surgery on his left ankle late in July 2021.
Even so, Leonard led the NFL with 8 forced fumbles last year. He also had 122 combined tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, 8 pass defenses and 4 interceptions in 16 games.
Leonard has 538 combined tackles, 15.0 sacks, 30 tackles for loss, 20 quarterback hits, 17 forced fumbles, 30 pass defenses and 11 interceptions in 58 career games.
Leonard Recovering from Back Surgery
Because of his back surgery, Leonard could miss some of training camp for the second straight year.
After revealing to reporters that Leonard had surgery on his back, Colts head coach Frank Reich said on June 7 that the linebacker would definitely miss “some training camp time” but “if all goes according to plan” will be ready to start in the regular season opener.
But then about a week later, Keefer reported Leonard could return at the start or close to the beginning of training camp.
Fowler wrote on July 7 that Leonard “will miss part of training camp recovering.”
Missing some training camp isn’t usually a big deal for a player such as Leonard, but the Colts are installing a different defensive system with new coordinator Gus Bradley. The team would probably prefer Leonard get some snaps in the new defense before the regular season begins.
Even still, Leonard enters the 2022 season as the top inside linebacker in the league according to the most knowledgable minds inside the NFL.