INDIANAPOLIS – Let the debating – and complaining – begin.
Three Indianapolis Colts have been selected to the Pro Bowl, and props to Quenton Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard and center Ryan Kelly.
Nelson joins Andrew Luck and Alan Ameche as the only players in Colts history to be selected in each of his first three seasons. Leonard was named for a second consecutive year while Kelly made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season as an alternate and makes a second appearance via the coaches/players/fans voting.
“We have so many deserving players in my mind,’’ coach Frank Reich said prior to the announcement of the team. “I’m just really proud of the individual effort and the guys that we have that will make it, and I have no doubt there’s going to be guys that don’t make it who deserve to make it.’’
As much as Nelson, Leonard and Kelly deserve the individual recognition, for the process to ignore DeForest Buckner and a few other Colts is laughable.
Reich described Buckner, the anchor of the NFL’s 7th-ranked defense as the disruptive 3-technique tackle, as “one of the one or two or three best in the NFL and we see what he does for us every week . . . how disruptive he is.
“As an interior guy he can not only be an elite pass rusher and get three sacks in a game, but he can wreck the run game, which he does. One of the reasons our defense has been so good against the run is because of what he’s doing wreaking havoc inside.’’
The Pro Bowl voting was completed before Buckner’s dominant performance in Sunday’s 27-20 win over Houston: 3 sacks, one forced fumble, another hit on Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson and four tackles, including two for a loss.
Buckner did that type of damage while playing on a significant ankle injury suffered in last Thursday’s practice. It limited him to a season-low 51% of the defensive snaps.
Buckner’s presence has been constant since general manager Chris Ballard acquired him in a March trade with San Francisco at a steep cost: the 13th overall pick in the April draft, followed by Ballard signing Buckner to a four-year, $84 million extension.
The 6-7, 295-pounder shares the team lead with Justin Houston and Denico Autry with 7.5 sacks, and ranks 4th in the league with 24 quarterback hits. He’s one behind Aaron Donald, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Strong cases also could be made for nickel corner Kenny Moore II, right tackle Braden Smith and special teams standout George Odom.
Reich was reluctant to single out Colts when discussing possible Pro Bowl selections, but endorsed Smith.
“I don’t want to start naming names,’’ he said, “but if you’re naming one of the guys who I think is one of the better right tackles in the league, it’s Braden Smith. He’s playing lights out, and he’s been a model of consistency through every game. I’m not sure he’s had a bad day in practice or on Sundays.
“The guy’s a stud. He’s a stud player and deserving of those kind of honors.’’
The Colts’ defense is 3rd in the NFL with 15 interceptions, and Moore has contributed a team-high four, including the memorable one-hander at Las Vegas. He’s also produced 65 tackles, 11 passes defended and one forced fumble.
Odom entered last weekend with an NFL-high 16 special teams tackles.
As for the three Colts who were selected, the evidence was undeniable.
Leonard is the first player in team history to pile up at least 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons and remains a defensive difference-maker. His forced fumble as Houston’s Keke Coutee was about to score a touchdown in the closing seconds Sunday sealed the victory.
Nelson and Kelly are integral components on an offensive line that is starting to get its act together in run blocking – the run game ranks 15th – and has been one of the league’s best in pass protection. The Colts have allowed just 16 sacks, the 2nd-fewest in the league, despite protecting immobile Philip Rivers.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Pro Bowl has been canceled and altered to a virtual format. It will be played on the Madden NFL 21 video game.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.