Indianapolis Colts Trio in NFL List of Top Players Under 25, but No Darius Leonard

Phillip B. Wilson

Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard has continually added young talent in a continual roster overhaul since his 2017 hiring.

Counting this year’s draft class, the Colts have 61 players on the roster who are 25 years old or younger.

It should come as no surprise that three Colts were mentioned Wednesday by NFL.com's Marc Sessler as being among the league's best under-25 players at their positions. What is a bit of a surprise - not seeing Colts weakside linebacker Darius Leonard among them. The reason? He turns 25 in late July.

Offensive guard Quenton Nelson is an obvious choice. Offensive right tackle Braden Smith and outside linebacker Bobby Okereke also made the list.

Indianapolis Colts offensive left guard Quenton Nelson has been named first-team All-Pro in each of his two NFL seasons.
Colts offensive right guard Quenton Nelson is considered among the NFL's best at his position.Mykal McEldowney/USA TODAY Sports

Nelson, 24, has stepped right in and dominated since being selected sixth overall in 2018. Both years, he’s been first-team All-Pro and named to the Pro Bowl. Sessler makes an even stronger statement (and he’s right!).

Forget the age restrictions: Nelson is already the finest guard in all of football. One of the most complete interior linemen of the 21st century, the third-year blocker cuts the figure of a mauler who could thrive in any era. It's a shame Andrew Luck didn't get his services sooner, but Philip Rivers isn't complaining.

Rivers, who signed with the Colts to play his 17th season, is looking to bounce back from a 20-interception finale with the L.A. Chargers. The 38-year-old quarterback should be able to count on a stronger offensive line with not just Nelson but Smith.

Indianapolis Colts offensive right guard Braden Smith has started 29 of 31 games in two seasons.
Offensive right tackle Braden Smith has started 29 of 31 games in two NFL seasons.Matt Kryger/USA TODAY Sports

A second-round pick at No. 37 overall in 2018, Smith has made the transition from college guard to NFL tackle. He was thrust into that role as a rookie when Joe Haeg got hurt, but then he never gave the job back.

Here’s Sessler’s assessment of Smith, 24, a starter in 29 of 31 games.

No questions linger over Smith, either, with the second-year Colts tackle scoring PFF's fourth-highest run-blocking mark at the position as an integral part of one of the AFC's top lines.

Indianapolis Colts strongside linebacker Bobby Okereke distinguished himself as one of the NFL's top rookie defenders in 2019.
Strongside linebacker Bobby Okereke had 65 total tackles as a rookie in 2019.Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

Okereke, drafted in the third round at No. 89 overall in 2019, continually progressed during his rookie season. He finished with 65 total tackles, one sack, one interception, and two forced fumbles.

What’s most impressive about Okereke, 23, is his versatility, as Sessler notes.

Many to pick from with Devin Bush, Devin White and Dre Greenlaw showing plenty as rookies. Okereke produced the most complete campaign of the bunch, though, finishing as PFF's ninth-rated linebacker with an ability to line up all over the field. He's dynamic in coverage, too, more of a need than ever in today's NFL. Colts GM Chris Ballard has an eye for stacking talent in the middle of his defense, pairing Okereke with alpha dog Darius Leonard to cause a special blend of havoc in Indy.

Indianapolis Colts weakside linebacker Darius Leonard has 284 total tackles in two NFL seasons.
Weakside linebacker Darius Leonard has made 284 total tackles in two NFL seasons.Jenna Watson/USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of Leonard, he’s no stranger to being snubbed. Perhaps this can be his latest motivation. Remember how “The Maniac” led the NFL in tackles as a rookie with 163 total stops in 15 games, but didn’t make the Pro Bowl?

Leonard, 24, received that Pro Bowl honor a year later after making 121 total tackles in 13 games in 2019. He was named first-team All-Pro as a rookie and second-team All-Pro last season.

And he’s not just a tackle machine. Leonard makes impact plays. He has 12 sacks, seven interceptions (including one returned for a TD), six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Sessler chose just one other linebacker to go with Okereke, and that was the Dallas Cowboys' Leighton Vander Esch. Drafted 19th overall the same year as Leonard, Vander Esch has made 212 total tackles in two seasons. Yeah, that's 72 fewer than Leonard. But, in keeping with the birthdate cut-off, Vander Esch is seven months younger.

(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is phillipbwilson24@yahoo.com.)

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