Colts’ Darius Leonard taking a less-is-more approach in year 2

Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts walks off the field after a win against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 11, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Darius Leonard is driven by one overriding theme as he embarks on his encore season.

Less is more.

How’s that?

Allow the NFL’s reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year to explain.

“I want to come in smaller than I did (as a rookie),’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ weak-side linebacker said.

After an ultra-successful career at under-the-radar South Carolina State – a school-record 394 tackles, 53 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks – Leonard was one of the surprise early selections in the NFL draft: the first of Chris Ballard’s four second-round picks, 36th overall.

His playing weight at South Carolina State hovered in the 215-pound range.

He reported to the Colts at 234.

“I felt like I was too big,’’ Leonard said. “I got banged up early and I want to take care of my body earlier than I did last year.’’

The weekly grind of the NFL had the expected results: a gradual decline in weight. When the Colts headed to Kansas City for a second-round playoff matchup with the Chiefs, Leonard tipped the scales at a relatively-svelte 215.

By NFL standards, that’s a decent strong safety.

“There’s no such thing as too small,’’ Leonard said. “It’s about the size of the dog in the fight. It’s about the heart that’s in the dog.

“I’m just a competitor. I want to compete. I want to beat the guy in front of me. That’s my mindset.’’

It served Leonard well last season, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe he’ll alter that approach in year 2. He entered the NFL with a chip on his shoulder, and the league quickly offered additional motivation.

Despite embracing numerous awards and achieving several personal benchmarks – first-team All-Pro, Defensive Rookie of the Year, a franchise-record and NFL-best 163 tackles, etc. – he wasn’t selected for the Pro Bowl.

“I was heartbroken at first because I thought I did enough,’’ Leonard said of the all-star snub. “But it is what it is.’’

What it is, again, is motivation. There’s zero chance complacency will follow Leonard into year 2. Less than zero.

Leonard made that clear Monday when the Colts convened for the start of their offseason workout program.

“What I did last year is nothing now,’’ he said. “It’s the start of a new season. The only thing I do now is – coach Flus (Matt Eberflus, defensive coordinator) talks about it all the time – watching all your bad plays and just see how you get better, because (opponents) are going to watch your bad plays as well and they are going to try to get at you that way.

“I am just going to try to keep getting better and try to not put a ceiling on how good I can be.’’

At the risk of hyperbole, the sky’s the limit.

“I will say this,’’ Ballard said. “I’ve been around (Brian) Urlacher, (Lance) Briggs and Derrick Johnson, and Darius Leonard has the ability to be every bit as good as all of them.

“He is real-deal good and he’s got real-deal character. Very pleased with Darius.’’

Even with a smaller version. When the Colts reported Monday, Leonard was at 221.

“I don’t want to get past 225,’’ he said, “so I am going to try to stay there.’’

Leonard is convinced playing his position at a lighter weight won’t diminish his effectiveness.

“I’m not a typical linebacker,’’ he said. “If you look at a linebacker . . . 6-4, 230 pounds, going to come downhill. I’m more of a speed guy and very athletic, so if I’m going to play in space I need to be able to move. I played all my life at 215. I was never over 225.

One of his objectives heading into year 2 is being better at shedding blocks.

“A lot of times when I engage in blocks I tend to stay a little longer than I want to,’’ he said. “So just getting off the blocks quicker.’’

If that was an issue last season, Leonard did a great job of hiding it. Along with the 163 tackles, he generated 12 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles. The 163 tackles, by the way, were the third-most by a rookie since 1970.

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