INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – First the good news: guard Quenton Nelson became the first Indianapolis Colts’ rookie offensive lineman since Chris Hinton in 1983 to be selected to the Pro Bowl, and he’s joined by tight end Eric Ebron.
Now the bad news. More than that, the it’s-really-hard-to-believe-this-actually-happened news: rookie linebacker Darius Leonard was snubbed.
Despite compiling a resume that includes an NFL-leading 146 tackles to go along with 7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 1 interception, Leonard has not among AFC linebackers selected for the NFL’s All-Star game, which is Jan. 27 in Orlando, Fla.
The second-round draft pick is one five Colts named Pro Bowl alternates, joining quarterback Andrew Luck, wideout T.Y. Hilton, center Ryan Kelly and defensive tackle Denico Autry. Several likely will be added to the eventual AFC roster as injuries sideline players, but the initial snub is jarring nonetheless
Tuesday afternoon before the Pro Bowl rosters were announced, coordinator Matt Eberflus insisted he wasn’t surprised Leonard was vying to become the first Colts’ rookie defensive player since safety Rick Volk in 1967 to be selected.
“It’s what he has put out there,’’ Eberflus said. “It is what he has done. He just keeps getting better.
“I think at the end of the day we are going to keep our nose down and we are going to just keep grinding and he is just going to keep getting better. Whatever happens at the end, the chips will fall there and we will go from there.’’
The disappointment over Leonard’s exclusion is countered by the first-time selections of Nelson and Ebron.
Nelson, the sixth overall pick in the April draft, has been a driving force behind one of the NFL’s most improved offensive lines. He’s brought an attitude and nastiness that has been instrumental in the Colts featuring the league’s best pass-protection unit – 16 sacks allowed, tied for the fewest in the NFL – and Marlon Mack becoming the first Colts running back since Joseph Addai in 2007 to rush for at least 100 yards three times.
Nelson is the first Colts’ rookie offensive lineman to be selected to the Pro Bowl since Hinton in ’83 – when the team still was in Baltimore – and the first guard to be chosen since Ron Solt in 1987.
General manager Chris Ballard was criticized in April for using the sixth overall pick on a guard – the last time a true guard was selected with a top-6 pick was 1986 – but Nelson’s performance has reaffirmed the decision.
Nelson and an upgraded line, insisted coordinator Nick Sirianni, has enhanced the performance of Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Mack and other skill players.
“You make them better because of his play up front,’’ Sirianni said. “I’ll say the entire offensive line as a group, obviously with Quenton . . . has maximized T.Y. Hilton’s ability and it has maximized Andrew’s ability because Andrew has time to let T.Y. work down the field to throw him the football.
“It takes your fourth-round pick, Marlon Mack, and it makes him even better because the holes are opening up just a little bit.’’
Ebron, meanwhile, was one of Ballard’s key offseason acquisitions. He relocated to Indy with a two-year, $15 million contract and has jump-started his career following four uneven seasons with the Detroit Lions.
Ebron’s 12 touchdown catches are a Colts’ single-season record by a tight end, the most among tight ends this season and second to Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (13) among all players. Among tight ends, he also ranks sixth with 59 receptions and fifth with 662 yards.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.