Colts training camp preview: Linebackers

Indianapolis Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – There’s no question the Indianapolis Colts value Darius Leonard.

We’re about to find out how much.

The heart and soul of coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense is in the final year of a rookie contract he’s greatly out-performed, and a lottery-level extension looms. It could be in place by the time players report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield next Tuesday for the start of training camp.

Leonard has a 2021 base salary of $3.384 million, but the extension figures to make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive players and perhaps the highest-paid non-edge rushing linebacker.

The latter status now rests with San Francisco’s Fred Warner, who has agreed to a five-year, $95 million extension that includes $40.5 million in guarantees. The $19 million average surpasses Seattle’s Bobby Wagner ($18 million).

The Colts have long been committed to extending Leonard. The 2018 second-round draft pick was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a two-time first-team All-Pro selection and named second-team All-Pro once.

“I think we can get it done,’’ owner Jim Irsay said in April. “I think it’s just a question of finding numbers . . . that makes sense. We understand where the market is, and we’re willing to pay what we feel is market value to get these deals done.’’

The Colts also are working on an extension for right tackle Braden Smith, another 2018 second-round pick.

“I’m planning on the fact that we’ll be getting them done,’’ Irsay said. “I’ll be surprised if we didn’t.’’

Warner’s extension offers a view of the neighborhood Leonard is about to reside. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Colts are expected to give Leonard a four-year extension worth more than $19 million per season.

During the offseason, Leonard made it clear an extension was a priority.

“They take value in me and hopefully that’ll show,’’ he said. “I give it my all day-in and day-out, never miss a day. Once I step on the field, I give everything I’ve got, and they know that.

“Hopefully we get everything settled, and hopefully we’ll be good to go.’’

Leonard’s value to the franchise includes his knack for producing game-changing plays and his infectious personality. In 42 regular-season starts, he’s piled up 416 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles.

He’s confident there’s more to come. He turns 26 the day the Colts report to Grand Park.

“Just getting better,’’ he said.

Leonard is the unquestioned catalyst of the linebackers group, and he’ll be expected to take on a stronger leadership role with the offseason departure of close friend Anthony Walker, who signed with the Cleveland Browns during the offseason.

Here’s a look at the position:

  • Starters: Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Zaire Franklin
  • Backups: Matthew Adams, E.J. Speed, Jordan Glasgow, Skai Moore, Malik Jefferson, Isaiah Kaufusi
Indianapolis Colts linebackers
Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Darius Leonard (53) and inside linebacker Bobby Okereke (58) celebrate a stop against the Baltimore Ravens in the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)


General manager Chris Ballard and his personnel staff believe in developing their own. That’s especially true at linebacker.

Of the nine on the roster, eight are homegrown. The outlier: Malik Jefferson, an offseason free-agent acquisition whose first three years in the league with Cincinnati, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Chargers have primarily been on special teams.

Leonard is the centerpiece of six draft picks. The 2019 draft produced Bobby Okereke (round 3) and E.J. Speed (round 5) while the ’18 draft – Leonard’s draft – also added a pair of seventh-rounders in Zaire Franklin and Matthew Adams. Jordan Glasgow was a sixth-rounder in 2020.

The Colts signed Skai Moore as an undrafted rookie in 2018 and Isaiah Kaufusi as an undrafted rookie in May.

Okereke gradually took snaps away from Walker as last season unfolded and should continue to develop into a solid Sam ‘backer and serve as a suitable bookend to Leonard at Will. Franklin should open camp as Walker’s replacement at Mike with Speed perhaps getting a chance to compete.

Speed has appeared in 27 games in two seasons, and emerged on special teams last season. He had nine total tackles – tied with fellow ‘backers Glasgow and Franklin – and blocked a punt at Tennessee that resulted in a touchdown.

Okereke’s time

As Okereke’s playing time has increased, so has his productivity. Go figure. Okereke’s snap count bounced from 45.6% as a rookie to 66.4% last season, and he became more of a factor with 72 tackles, four tackles for loss, one interception and six passes defensed.

Does he anticipate things changing now that Walker’s in Cleveland?

“Not too much,’’ he said. “Towards the end of the season I was playing . . . 60, 70, 80% of the snaps, so just filling that last 20, 30% snaps in a game. Obviously Anthony was a rock on our team, a focal point, really a leader.

“Just for me, personal accountability, stepping up and making sure that I’m that consistent leader for everyone on the defense and really just keeping this thing rolling.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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