Colts’ Darius Leonard, Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch set for ‘reunion’
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – At some point Sunday as Colts and Cowboys go through stretching and jogging and warm-ups on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, a pair of rambunctious rookies undoubtedly will find each other.
Darius Leonard and Leighton Vander Esch have some catching up to do. Maybe they’ll even compare rookie resumes.
Two of the NFL’s high-profile, high-energy young linebackers shared time prior to the April NFL draft on simultaneous visits with the Dallas Cowboys.
“We were in the same room,’’ Leonard said. “We talked football the whole night.
“He’s a pretty cool dude. Humble.’’
Fast-forward to Sunday.
Leonard and Vander Esch are together again, in the same room, so to speak.
Each has emerged as a driving force behind a top-11 defense. Each is among the NFL leaders in tackles. Each was named Defensive Player of the Month – Leonard for September, Vander Esch for November.
Each is among the front-runners for Defensive Rookie of the Year in a season teeming with candidates. Denver end Bradley Chubb has 12 sacks and is bearing down on Jevon Kearse’s NFL rookie record (14.5 in 1999). Safeties Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers and Justin Reid of Houston and Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward are in the midst of solid debuts.
“There are a lot of guys out there that are playing phenomenal, phenomenal football as rookies,’’ ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said. “They’re all playing key roles. They’re all fantastic defensive players.
“I wouldn’t have any issue with Darius or Leighton or Bradley Chubb or Derwin James getting Rookie of the Year. They’re just fantastic, fantastic players.’’
With the Colts and Cowboys meeting Sunday in a game with significant playoff ramifications, the attention sharpens on Leonard and Vander Esch.
Leonard was the fifth linebacker selected in the April draft and the first of four second-round picks by the Colts. General manager Chris Ballard was captivated by the South Carolina State product’s playmaking ability. During a casual post-draft meeting with the media, Ballard was downright giddy while showing video of Leonard’s 19-tackle outing at Clemson.
Leonard probably has exceeded the team’s expectations. Despite missing the New England game with an ankle injury, he leads the NFL in total tackles (135) and solos (90), and complemented those with 7 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 4 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. In his second NFL game, Leonard piled up 19 tackles at Washington, the most ever by a Colts rookie.
Vander Esch was the 19th overall pick, and has played like it. When a hamstring injury sidelined Pro Bowl ‘backer Sean Lee, he more than filled the void. Vander Esch has started eight of 13 games and, like Leonard, has a busy stat line: 106 tackles (seventh in the league, according to NFL.com), 2 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 7 defended passes.
“Leighton and Darius are very similar as far as being long, rangy, multi-dimensional players that can blitz, that can tackle, that can play the run, that can cover, that are smart,’’ Riddick said. “They’re the kind of linebackers you need in today’s game.
“Of all the (rookie candidates), Darius is probably the one that’s talked about the least simple because his team’s not as high-profile.’’
Frank Reich has witnessed and appreciates Leonard quick transition from college to the pros. Leonard has been a driving force behind the Colts’ defense rising to 11th in the league after finishing 30th last season.
“One is playmaking ability, just playmaking ability,’’ Reich said. “Like the play he makes on defending the pass on (DeAndre) Hopkins last week that we were all talking about.’’
And like the play Leonard made at Oakland in week 8. In the fourth quarter and with the Colts protecting a 35-28 lead but the Raiders driving, Leonard tomahawk-chopped the football out of the hands of running back Doug Martin. The Colts capitalized on the forced fumble and won 42-28.
“The playmaking as far as the consistency at making open-field tackles,’’ Reich said. “I mean tough tackles in the open field and just doing that so consistently.
“But then he has just brought juice. He’s a leader. He has just got a lot of energy. You guys get to see and talk to him. For a rookie, just to bring that strong of leadership I think is such an added bonus.’’
Leonard is aware there will be comparisons as he and Vander Esch attack Sunday’s game. Who’s done more? Which rookie boosted his stock?
Leonard insisted he doesn’t need the external motivation of playing the Cowboys or sharing the field with Vander Esch.
“I play this game 110 percent no matter who I’m playing against,’’ he said. “Just because it’s a big name on the other side of the line of scrimmage is not going to excite me to play any harder. I’m just going to play to the best of my ability no matter what.
“I’m more so about winning and losing. I’m just doing everything to help this team win, not being Defensive Rookie of the Year.’’