The Indianapolis Colts waived four-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard on Tuesday, the team announced. Leonard said goodbye to the Colts on social media on Tuesday. Here’s what you need to know:
Leonard, 28, was on a Hall of Fame trajectory last year, limited to just three games before undergoing two back surgeries. He has never been the same dominant player since. Leonard has been frustrated with his reduced role this year and has repeatedly voiced his anger. With Zaire Franklin, the NFL’s third-leading rusher, missing a game, Indianapolis opted to play undrafted second-year pro Segun Olubi over Leonard. Barring an injury-riddled campaign last year, Leonard is back to full health this year, but he’s playing at a professional level — 70 percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
Indy, thank you 💜 pic.twitter.com/VxMa1VU2IA
— Darius Shaquille Leonard (@dsleon45) November 21, 2023
What does it mean for the Governors?
Two years ago, it seemed unlikely that the Colts and Leonard would part ways. The 2018 second-round pick had an immediate impact in the NFL with a franchise-record 163 tackles in a season (since broken by Franklin). However, Indianapolis – sitting at 5-5 coming off a bye week – will try to make a playoff push without him.
Leonard’s production doesn’t line up with his salary. Although it seemed too late for Indianapolis to cut him midway through the season, it also appeared inevitable. Leonard signed a well-deserved five-year, $98.5 million extension in August 2021, but this year he was essentially reduced to an overpaid rotating linebacker. He still has three years and $46.8 million left on his deal, and the Colts could release him at the end of the season to save $12.1 million. $8 million death hit by 2024. It’s unclear at this point what financial implications the Colts will face by cutting Leonard before the season ends, but one thing is certain: They’re not willing to pay Leonard a superstar because they don’t believe he’s one. – James Boyd, Colts staff writer
If a team were to waive Shaq Leonard, he would be owed $6.11 million for the rest of the season.
In the year Contracted through 2026, due as follows: 2024: ~$16.1M2025: ~$19M2026: ~$19.6M
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 21, 2023
What does it mean to Leonard?
Even though Leonard’s stellar career in Indianapolis is over, he will have a chance to start anew. The 28-year-old said he believes he can return to his 2021 All-Pro form. But defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme didn’t allow him to make the “splash plays” that were their hallmark under former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, the Bears’ head coach.
“It’s different this year,” Leonard said recently. “Either I’m hitting the ball to Zaire or I’m running to safety. I’m not as free as I used to be in defense.
Whatever the reason, the Colts didn’t budge on Leonard’s limited playing time, and he didn’t do himself any favors. In Indianapolis, Germany’s win over the New England Patriots, he struggled, especially in his attempts to bring down Ezekiel Elliott. The Patriots running back pulled a screen pass early in the first quarter and easily found Leonard for a 19-yard gain on second-and-8.
As poor as that second-down game was, Indianapolis didn’t even trust Leonard on third down this season. After being sidelined for Week 5 with a groin injury, Leonard played 21 of the Colts’ 134 third-down snaps (15.6 percent) in nine games. The last time he gained more than 2 yards on a third-down play was in Week 6. Perhaps Leonard can find a bigger role elsewhere and establish himself as a premier player.
“My patience is thrown out the window,” Leonard said recently. “I want to be on the field. If I want to buy a ticket, I can sit in the stands.” – Boyd
What are they saying?
Serious business.. 💙 pic.twitter.com/fb2XcdmegD
— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) November 21, 2023
“Shaq is the ultimate competitor and has been a fan favorite since he arrived as a rookie in 2018,” Coles general manager Chris Ballard said. We are extremely grateful for his contributions to the team and the city of Indianapolis over the past six seasons. We wish him the best and he will always be a member of the Horseshoe.
“I’m grateful for the energy Shaq brings to our team every day,” Colts coach Shane Steichen said. “He’s competitive, a leader, and respected by his teammates. I wish him all the best.”
Bradley, who said the team is looking for Leonard to return to form in November, spoke volumes about Leonard’s frustration after the Colts beat the Panthers in Week 9. As a competitor, Leonard admitted that his time as a player should be frustrating. “Don’t give up on wanting to be on the field every game. Bradley mentioned that he constantly talked to Leonard about the role so he wouldn’t be blindsided.
“He may or may not have liked it, but it was there,” Bradley said. “…I think it was a good relationship. Really in there, ‘Yeah, coaches are talking to me, there’s accountability. I was upset with him. But I understood the role and I understood what was asked of me and it was on. I guess that’s life at work with anyone, right? There may be things you don’t want to hear at work. Sometimes if there is openness and understanding, at least you have that.
Leonard didn’t hold back when asked about Bradley continuing to compete for playing time
“Everybody says they want you to keep that fighting edge until you step on the toes,” Leonard said. “We had conversations at that point and it was more, ‘Get to November and we’ll see.’ We saw it in November and it’s really hard, man. It’s frustrating when you’re having those conversations and trying to figure out what else to do. … I really don’t know what to do.
In addition to Bradley, Colts coach Shane Steichen was frequently asked about Leonard’s frustration, and while he acknowledged it, Steichen didn’t elaborate on how the team would deal with it. That trend continued when Leonard’s complaint was brought up again after Indianapolis’ win over the Patriots. Steichen praised Leonard for his efforts but not his performance. “I thought he played hard,” Stechen said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Shaq and like I said, we’re going to go through that process with him every week with game time.”
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(Photo: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)