Darius Leonard Scouting Report By Charlie Campbell
Excellent run defender
Comfortable in space
Can break down and make tackles in space
Quick to read his keys
Fits a 4-3 or 3-4 defense
Always around the ball
Quick to the flat
Very cognizant to go for strips; creates turnovers
Natural dropping into zone coverage
Covers lots of ground
Can run down the seam
Functional pass-coverage linebacker
Man-coverage potential versus tight ends and running backs
Special teams ability
Doesn't have great size
Could have issues defending downhill runs straight at him
Could have issues getting off blocks in the NFL
Needs more weight to play middle linebacker in the NFL
Summary: During the early going of the fall of 2017, scouting sources told me that Leonard really impressed them and was a star small-school prospect for the NFL. Part of that stemmed from his 2016 game against Clemson in which Leonard was all over the field against the eventual National Champions. 2017 saw Leonard finish off an impressive collegiate career with four years of strong play at South Carolina State.
Leonard broke onto the field as a freshman, totaling 86 tackles with 14 tackles for a loss, five sacks, one pass broken up, and two forced fumbles. In his sophomore year, he had 70 tackles, 13.5 for a loss, five sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Leonard took his game to another level in 2016, more than doubling his tackle total with 124 stops. The junior also added four forced fumbles, two interceptions, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks and three passes batted. As a senior, Leonard amassed 113 tackles with eight tackles for a loss, eight sacks, one pass batted, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
There is a lot to like about Leonard for the NFL. He is an instinctive linebacker who is quick to read his keys and get in position to make plays. Leonard is a good wrap-up tackler who can pack a punch when he gets there, and he is very conscious to create big plays by consistently trying to strip the ball from ball-carriers. His eight career forced fumbles were no accident. Leonard is a quick defender who is able to go from sideline to sideline. With his speed, instincts, play recognition, and diagnosis skills, Leonard is a sound run defender. There are areas of improvement as Leonard needs to get stronger more stout to defend runs coming downhill straight at him. Adding more power to shed blocks in the NFL is a necessity for him.
The key for any linebacker to be an impactful three-down starter is his ability to excel in pass coverage. Leonard shows potential, as he is a capable defender at helping to limit passing attacks. For coverage, he has the speed, athleticism and agility to be a man-coverage option against running backs or tight ends. He also gets good depth in zone and is sound to be in the right spot while covering up receivers who come into his territory. Leonard has the necessary quickness to run down the seam and defend the downfield middle portion of the field. In the early going of his NFL career, Leonard would be better off playing zone and improving his man-coverage skills before he gets isolated on tight ends or backs.
Leonard also is a dangerous blitzer who closes on the quarterback quickly. His 21.5 sacks over his college career illustrate that he has a real nose for the signal-caller. Leonard probably won't be used to rush off the edge in the NFL, but he has the skills to put pressure on the quarterback and will be able to contribute some sacks if he is given the opportunity to blitz often.
Leonard could stand to get stronger for the NFL. He has the frame to add weight, but being below 230 pounds is problematic for him to be a middle linebacker. Leonard should be able to get that done a pro strength and conditioning program. To start his career, Leonard might fit best as a Will - weakside - linebacker, which would decrease the amount of blocks he has to take on. In time after getting bigger and stronger, Leonard could end up being a starting three-down Mike - middle - linebacker, or he could remain a Will linebacker throughout his career. He could fit a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. Coming from a big jump in competition, team sources say that Leonard may need a year of development as a rotational backup and special teams contributor before becoming a starter in second or third year of his career.
With Leonard's well-rounded game, his impressive Senior Bowl performance, and excellent tape from his collegiate career, he should be a second- or third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Player Comparison: E.J. Henderson. Leonard reminds me of E.J. Henderson in his good years with the Vikings. Leonard will need to gain weight to his frame to be a similar linebacker to Henderson, but athletically they have some similarities and both are well-rounded players. Henderson was a second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft and went on to be a Pro Bowler with the Vikings during a 9-year career. I think Leonard could have a similar solid pro career to Henderson.
NFL Matches: Oakland, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, New England and Philadelphia
There are a lot of teams that could be a fit for Leonard in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Raiders have to improve the middle of their defense and the front seven. Leonard would be an upgrade to their rush defense and pass coverage.
Dallas could use more linebacker talent, and Leonard could give the team a long-term complement to go with Jaylon Smith. Detroit also could use more linebacker talent to go with Jarrad Davis.
The Vikings could consider an upgrade at Will linebacker next to Erik Kendricks. Leonard, Kendricks and Anthony Barr would give Minnesota a very talented trio.
The Steelers could consider adding a linebacker after losing Lawrence Timmons to free agency last offseason and Ryan Shazier going down with a serious injury. New England could use more linebacker talent next to Dont'a Hightower. Philadelphia has a good linebacker in Jordan Hicks, but Hicks has major durability issues. Leonard could interest the Eagles to upgrade the middle of their defense.