INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Darius Leonard finds motivation in every snub.
When he was dubbed one of the worst draft selections of 2018, the Indianapolis Colts linebacker responded by winning the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. When he was left out of the Pro Bowl that season even though he was an All-Pro, he made sure the voters didn't make the same mistake in 2019.
Now, as Leonard enters his third season, he has new goals and a familiar mission: proving the doubters wrong.
“I'm always on Twitter, I look for every bad comment," he said Monday during a Zoom call from training camp. “I look for everybody just talking trash about me, because if someone out there is talking trash, that means I'm not doing enough. So I've got to make sure, no matter what, I've got to be the best at my position or take whatever criticism and use it as fuel to try to be the best."
It's a familiar refrain from Leonard, who has never been shy about speaking his mind when it comes to how others view him.
He has not forgotten those who thought he couldn't measure up to his bigger, older brother, Anthony Waters, who won a Super Bowl with New Orleans. He has not forgotten those who said he was too small to play at Clemson or even those who called him a second-round reach.
Instead, he has proudly worn that chip on his sleeve — and now his feet. Leonard’s wife, Kayla, and agent, Ethan Lock, teamed up to customize a pair of blue-and-white cleats that bear some of the thoughts Leonard uses for daily motivation.
“Fourth-best linebacker,” Leonard said, citing ESPN's most recent position ranking when asked which comment angered him most this year. “You play the game to be the best and if you’re not the top one at your position then you’re not doing the right thing. I think I have to continue to go out each and every week and prove I can be the best linebacker. But until then, the fourth-best linebacker projection, that’s a knock I just can’t live with.”
Leonard's numbers certainly make the case he should be higher.
In 28 games with the Colts, he has 284 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He's forced six fumbles, picked off seven passes, returned those interceptions for an 18.6-yard average including one touchdown, and an emphatic stiff-arm on a game-sealing turnover last season.
Yet Leonard finds little satisfaction in those stats.
His top three aspirations: winning the Super Bowl; winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award; becoming just the third defensive player to win the league's MVP award. Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor was the last in 1986.
But this year's list of goals includes items such as reclaiming first-team All-Pro status after slipping to second team last year, and demonstrating to everyone he should be ranked higher. The voters include NFL players, who put him No. 50 on the list of top 100 overall, and the No. 85 ranking on Madden 21.
“That’s who I am. I’m going to show the world that, ‘OK, I see what you’re saying and I’m going to go out there and prove that I can do what you said that I cannot do,’ “ he said. “I would never shy away from it. I would never stop going on Twitter to see that. As long as you have someone continue to say negative things, continue to badly rank you day in and day out no matter what – I need that.”
Leonard talks constantly about the need to improve as a pass rusher, run stopper and in pass coverage, and nothing is left to chance. When the league shut down offseason workouts, Leonard quickly converted his “man cave” in rural South Carolina into a workout room.
And he told reporters Monday he gave no thought to opting out of this season with newly acquired Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner lining up in front of him, and friendly rival Anthony Walker back for another season at middle linebacker.
But Walker knows that as much as Leonard is motivated to continue proving his value on the field, Leonard also wants to take back the title of the Colts' leading tackler.
“He doesn’t need any motivation from me but yeah, it is a competition," Walker said. “We try to compete with each other and compete with our linebacker group. We feel like that brings out the best in all of us. He knows we both want each other to succeed, but that is our race. Our race to the ball is every play and I was able to get there one more time last year."