Darius Leonard Was Snubbed by ESPN in the Offseason, Now He’s the Highest-Paid Linebacker in the NFL

Darius Leonard, a second-round pick out of South Carolina State in the 2017 NFL Draft, has been a pleasant surprise for the Oakland Raiders. The team signed him to a four-year, $5.8 million contract, and he started all 16 games last season. He finished the season with 75 total tackles, two sacks, six tackles for a loss, and two forced fumbles. Leonard received a four-year contract extension worth $66.4 million last week, making him the highest-paid linebacker in the league. Leonard’s four-year, $66.4 million deal is the most lucrative contract ever for a linebacker. That’s also the fourth-largest contract ever for a linebacker, behind only Jamie Collins

Darius Leonard has been one of the most polarizing players to come out of this year’s NFL Draft: some draft experts said he was the best player in the class, while others said he was one of the biggest reaches in the 2018 NFL Draft — and that the player mocked by many as a seventh round pick was actually a fourth round selection.

Darius Leonard was one of the more notable undrafted free agents to sign with a team this past offseason, and if you delve a little deeper, you’ll see why. He’s gotten a lot of attention for his play this season and is leading the Kansas City Chiefs in tackles, sacks, and forced fumbles. And now, he’s making some serious bank.

Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts was given his big payday a few weeks after Fred Warner of the San Francisco 49ers got his blockbuster contract extension. Leonard is now the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL after signing a five-year contract for $99 million.

It was a question of “when,” not “if,” that this expansion would happen. Leonard has been the Colts’ greatest defense since his rookie season in 2018 — losing him to free agency would have been disastrous for a club on the verge of competing for a Super Bowl (as long as they can get Carson Wentz healthy).

Leonard is a two-time All-Pro, two-time Pro Bowl player, and the 2018 Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is often regarded as the greatest or second-best linebacker in the NFL by many football fans and experts (behind Warner).

This offseason, though, ESPN adopted a different approach. 

Darius Leonard was ranked as the fourth-best linebacker in the NFL by ESPN this past summer.

Leonard was left off of ESPN’s latest offseason ranking list, which looked at each position group and identified the top players. He was not even designated a top-three linebacker, falling behind Devin White, Warner, and Bobby Wagner on the depth chart.

While White, Warner, and Wagner are all excellent defensive players in their own right, Leonard deserves to be in the top three, if not higher, on such a list. He’s been dominating for three seasons in a row, and he has the statistics and awards to prove it.

According to one ESPN poll, Leonard is the seventh-best linebacker in the NFL. This is a ridiculous position to take against a guy who has 400+ tackles in his first three seasons in the NFL.

Leonard’s new deal more accurately represents his worth and significance.

Only one player in the history of the NFL had 300 tackles in his first 30 games.

Leonard, Darius.

Leonard is the only player in NFL history to record 10 sacks and 5 interceptions in his first 25 games (since sacks became an official stat in 1982). pic.twitter.com/iNO0CC2KlG #Colts

August 8, 2023 — Jeff Kerr (@JeffKerrCBS)

Contracts in the NFL are amusing. Due to the “resetting of the market,” almost every new extension ends up being a record-setter. It’s not unusual for a player to be the highest-paid in his or her position one week and then be overlapped the next.

Leonard and the Colts waited until Warner was paid by the San Francisco 49ers before discussing a long-term contract, enabling Leonard to demand a higher pay. 

It’s a huge deal to pay $99 million to a linebacker these days, which further emphasizes Leonard’s significance to the Colts’ defense.

The Colts set aside cap space expressly for this transaction.

Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts.

Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts. Justin Casterline/Getty Images/Darius Leonard

The Colts had a pretty quiet offseason apart from dealing for Wentz and his higher-than-average contract. They brought back Xavier Rhodes and T.Y. Hilton as major players and were not active in the draft. The Colts had a lot of money to spend in the offseason, but they chose to save in anticipation of a Leonard deal.

The Colts also just signed right tackle Braden Smith to a long-term contract extension, securing a key member of their offensive line for the foreseeable future.

In the end, ESPN rankings are never the be-all and end-all. Leonard is currently the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL, despite getting votes as low as eighth. With 416 tackles, 26 TFLs, 22 passes defensed, 15 sacks, and seven interceptions already under his belt, it’s difficult to argue that Leonard isn’t worth every cent of his $99 million contract.

Pro Football Reference provided all stats.

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