All teams have needs every season, but not every team’s need arises from the loss of a great athletic talent. The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without Ryan Shazier in 2018, and quite possibly forever, and will seek a linebacker with similar traits. Roquan Smith, Rashaan Evans, and Leighton Vander Esch are the top inside linebackers in the draft. Smith is a likely top 15 pick, but Evans and Vander Esch could be available at 28. Assuming they’re not, and the Steelers go linebacker at 28, South Carolina State’s Darius Leonard is more than a consolation prize. Leonard dreamed of going to Clemson like his step-brother. Although he had to settle for playing at a small-school, Leonard put up big-school numbers.
Darius Leonard Matches The Steelers Needs For An Inside Linebacker
The Steelers are facing the impossible task of replacing Shazier, which can’t be done. There is only one Shazier. However, there’s several prospects with similar traits, including Leonard, the small school prospect with big school talent. Leonard was hoping to follow his step-brother to Clemson University but was a late academic qualifier. Clemson moved on from Leonard, who went to South Carolina State. “My brother played at Clemson, I stayed at Death Valley, I went to camps, I really wanted to go there,” Leonard said. “It hurt me pretty bad when they didn’t call. They told me in the fall they had a scholarship for me.”
Leonard took his disappointment and frustration and immediately turned it into production. He led South Carolina State in tackles as a 2014 redshirt freshman, racking up 86, including 14 for loss. Leonard added five sacks, and two forced fumbles. Leonard recorded 381 total tackles during his four years, including 264 solo tackles. He defended 13 passes and recorded 20 sacks. Leonard also picked off seven passes, forced seven fumbles, and had 42 tackles for loss. He played well against the big boys, even when his team wasn’t doing well. Leonard recorded 19 total tackles and a blocked field goal during a 59-0 blowout loss to Clemson.
How Darius Leonard Fits In The Pittsburgh Steelers Defense
The Steelers have had success when they’ve dipped into the South Carolina State talent pool. Donnie Shell and, most recently, Javon Hargrave both contributed significantly to the Steelers defense during their rookie years. Both were unheralded coming out of college, much like Leonard. The Steelers saw something in Shell and Hargrave, the same thing they should see in Leonard, a small school player with the ability to help the defense immediately. Keith Butler has plenty of thumper type linebackers like Vince Williams, but what he needs is sniper who can cover ground.
Leonard’s long speed is better than Lawrence Timmons, and he has much better closing speed. He is a sure tackler and an explosive blitzer. Leonard is athletic, with excellent sideline to sideline range, and has solid ball skills. He is a solid tackler, does a good job setting the edge, and diagnoses plays quickly. Leonard is explosive at the point of contact but needs to add bulk to his upper body to fight off blocks. Overall, Leonard’s combination of size, speed, and athleticism fits nicely in Keith Butler’s scheme, and he has the talent to become a starter.
Last Word on Darius Leonard
According to NFL.com, Leonard possesses Long and twitchy with athletic ability and straight-line speed that should light up the combine. Leonard has packed on the pounds since hitting campus, but it hasn’t compromised his play speed as he has posted dominant production throughout. He lacks play strength and there are times you want to see more nasty in his field demeanor, but he has the traits and talent to become a good, three-down linebacker who can play 3-4 inside backer or 4-3 WILL. Leonard has been playing with a huge chip on his shoulder since being passed over by Clemson. He is out to prove his value and that he belongs with the big boys.
The Steelers have had great success with players like Leonard for years. His athleticism, size and speed give the Steelers what they’ve been missing since Shazier went down. Though he can’t replace the player, Leonard is more than an adequate talent to fill the position. If the top three inside linebackers in the draft go before the Steelers pick, and they end up with Leonard, they will have gotten much more than a consolation prize. If Leonard had the chance to play at Clemson, or say an SEC school, chances are he’d be being mentioned in the same breath as those expected to go in the first round in a few weeks.