It was fun while it lasted, but the debate is over for now. Darius Leonard is the best linebacker in the NFL. Bobby Wagner, Eric Kendricks and Fred Warner are all great players, but they aren’t Darius Leonard. Sure it’s rich coming from the Colts website, but by the end of the article, you’ll see where I’m coming from.
When evaluating linebackers statistically, we have to see how they rank as a run stoppers, pass rushers and in coverage as the linebackers are the versatile members of the defense and must be adequate or good in all areas to excel.
Since entering the NFL, Darius Leonard has amassed:
- 298 solo tackles (6.1 per game)
- 49 total pressures including 15 sacks (0.3 sacks per game)
- 13 forced fumbles (0.2 forced fumbles per game)
- 9 interceptions (0.2 interceptions per game)
- Missed tackle percentage of 6.3%
- Passer rating allowed in coverage score of 92.4
If we compare Leonard to Wagner, Kendricks, Warner as well as Lavonte David and Demario Davis (who most believe to be the best off-ball linebackers in the game), here’s how Leonard stacks up:
Of those players (since 2018), Leonard ranks:
- 1st in solo tackles and 1st in solo tackles per game
- 2nd in sacks (Demario Davis better with one more) and T-1st in sacks per game
- 1st in forced fumbles and 1st in forced fumbles per game
- 1st in interceptions and 1st in interceptions per game
- 2nd in missed tackle percentage (only Wagner lower)
- 2nd in NFL Passer Rating against (only Kendricks lower)
I didn’t add in Devin White to the list because he is only beginning his third season in the league, but the reality is he just doesn’t stack up against the other linebackers and almost all his scores/figures (on a per game basis) would rank him in the bottom half of the list. Any list that has him as a top 5 linebacker right now in the league is inherently flawed.
We see with the stats that Leonard is better than the other top linebackers in just about every major statistical category. These stats show that he is a great run stopper (solo tackles, low missed tackle percentage), very good in coverage (passer rating against, interceptions), creates a lot of pressures (sacks, pressures) and is a turnover machine (forced fumbles, interceptions). He is first or 2nd in all those major categories against the best of the best in the NFL.
Play of Defense & Record
If Leonard isn’t playing on winning teams or his defense consistently underperform then that’s an argument that can be used against him. The Colts have a winning record with him in the lineup (28-21) and the defense averages 21.7 points per game. They are 3-3 without him and allow 27.5 points per game. While a small sample size, their winning percentage drops .071% (equivalent to over one game over a 17 game season) and they allow 7 more points on defense. They are clearly better with him than without him.
The defense’s 3rd down stop percentage of 42.5% with Leonard on the field would rank in the middle of the pack in the NFL most seasons. Without him it’s 45.5% and that would rank in the top 10 every season.
It’s no surprise that the Colts are better with him on the field and the reality is the other teams are better with their star linebackers on the field too. What separates Leonard is that he hasn’t had many seasons of elite quarterback play to help carry the offense. Bobby Wagner has always had Russell Wilson, Demario Davis (with the Saints) has had Drew Brees until this year and Lavonte David and the Bucs has been all over the place but having Tom Brady over the last couple of years helps. As for Kendricks and Warner, Kendricks has had Kirk Cousins for the last few years and while the narrative is that Cousins is not an elite quarterback, he is definitely above average and puts up top 10 QB numbers many weeks. Only Fred Warner is in the same boat as Leonard with inconsistent and in some cases downright awful quarterback play.
The difference between Leonard and Warner is that Leonard has a winning record and Warner does not. So Leonard didn’t have the benefit of consistent elite quarterback play for years and has a better record than the one who was in the same boat as him.
So if you want a linebacker that:
- Stops the run as well or better than anyone
- Plays in coverage as well or better than anyone
- Forces turnovers as well or better than anyone
- Has a much better record when on the field than off the field
- Has a team who performs much better on defense with him than without him
Then your man is Darius Leonard, who to me, has proven to be the #1 off-ball linebacker in the NFL as of this writing.
The numbers and stats don’t lie.