INDIANAPOLIS – Shaquille Leonard’s meteoric, decorated career with the Indianapolis Colts ended Tuesday afternoon with a post on social media.
The team’s perennial All-Pro linebacker announced he had been released.
“These past 6 years has been nothing but incredible!’’ Leonard said on X, formerly Twitter. “I’m thankful to play for such an amazing fan base.
“I love you guys and wish the Colts nothing but the best.’’
His signoff: Maniac out.
Despite Leonard’s recent complaining about a diminished role and playing time in Gus Bradley’s defense as he attempted to come back from two surgeries to address disc/nerve issues in his back, the decision to waive him was purely a personnel matter.
Leonard did not ask the team for his release, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. At this turkey drive on Tuesday evening, Leonard said the Colts’ decision was a surprise to him.
“It was the biggest surprise ever,” Leonard said. “I don’t make those decisions. It was shocking. I asked for a November meeting, and I guess I got a November meeting.
“They actually came up to me after team photos. We had team photos on Monday. Then, Gus walked up to me and said, ‘Let’s go have that November meeting that you’ve been wanting.’ Then, when I got there, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. So, I just wish it would’ve went a little different.”
If a team claims Leonard off waivers, which is highly unlikely, it would assume the remainder of the five-year, $98.25 million extension he signed in August 2021. If he goes unclaimed, Leonard becomes an unrestricted free agent and the Colts would be responsible for the remaining $6.1 million of his 2023 base salary ($15.7 million).
It had been widely speculated the team would address Leonard’s status after the season based on his lessened impact and financial obligations moving forward. Leonard was signed through 2026 and was due to count $20.1 million, $23.55 million and $19.7 million against the salary cap the next three years.
Had the team cut him next offseason, it would have saved $12 million against the cap and carried $8 million in dead money.
At his turkey drive, Leonard said he’s not sure what his next move or destination will be.
“I’m trying to figure that out,” Leonard said. “If the opportunity presented itself or the right fit or the right opportunity, of course, man. I love playing ball. That’s what I do. I love to compete, I love to have fun. I don’t see myself just giving up on football right now.”
The Colts were quick to praise Leonard’s impact on the franchise.
“Colts Nation will always remember The Maniac’s palpable energy on the field with each tackle, interception, punchout and fumble recovery,’’ owner Jim Irsay said in a statement through the team.
He prefaced his post on X with: Tough business.
General manager Chris Ballard described Leonard as “the ultimate competitor.’’
Added coach Shane Steichen: “I’m thankful for the energy Shaq brought to our team on a daily basis. He’s a competitor, a leader and is respected among his teammates. I wish him the best.’’
However, this ending – although sooner than expected – seemed inevitable and was in stark contrast to the beginning.
Leonard’s relationship with the Colts began as a 2018 second-round draft pick that quickly blossomed into so much more: Defensive Rookie of the Year; four-time All-Pro selection, including three first-team nods; captain and heart and soul of the defense.
But his future with the franchise was jeopardized by two back surgeries five months apart, the latest coming in November.
Normally a player who seldom came off the field, Leonard had been relegated to first and second downs this season, and only rarely was on the field for third-down situations.
He steadfastly insisted he was very close to regaining the form that placed him among the premier linebackers in the NFL, but his on-field performance didn’t reflect that.
Leonard ranks fourth on the team with 65 tackles, but there have been just two “splash’’ plays: both tackles for loss. He had a season-high 11 tackles against New Orleans, 10 against Carolina and nine against New England in Germany. But against the Patriots, Leonard appeared to be a half-step slow, especially on a tackle attempt against Ezekiel Elliott that led to a 19-yard gain with a screen pass.
Zaire Franklin has succeeded Leonard as the featured linebacker in Bradley’s scheme, and E.J. Speed’s continued emergence further cut into Leonard’s playing time.
That diminished role ate away at the ultra-competitive Leonard.
“I’m a competitor. I want to play,’’ he said last week. “I’ve put my body through so much. I’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point and it is frustrating when you’re standing on the sideline knowing that you’re capable of going out there and competing at a high level.’’
During Tuesday’s turkey drive, Leonard said the Colts’ top brass indicated he would be “inactive” as the season started to wind down. Leonard added that he would’ve accepted a reduced role in some capacity.
“I told them a month ago, like, ‘Yes, I want to play. There’s no question I want to play.’ I always told them that, if E.J. is playing better than me, I have no problem with E.J. being the starter. I told them that.
“So, I honestly thought that, if I wasn’t going to play, I was going to be a backup. I did not think that I was going to get the boot and get fired on my day off.”
That internal drive contributed to Leonard becoming one of the NFL’s most disruptive ‘backers. In his first four seasons, he generated 538 tackles, including 30 for a loss, 15 sacks, 20 quarterback hits, 11 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
That’s what made accepting a complementary role so difficult.
Leonard kept referring to one phrase when describing his situation with the Colts.
It sucks. It sucks.
Leonard made an immediate impact as a rookie. From 2018-2021, he handled at least 90% of the snaps in 48 of his 58 starts, including 100% 40 times.
This season, he topped 80% in just three of nine games. In the past two games, Leonard was on the field for 69.6% of the snaps against New England and 54.9% against the Panthers.
Leonard seemed resigned to a similar role for the rest of the season.
“In my mind, I feel this is how it’s going to be,’’ he said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be frustrating.
“But it is what it is.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on X, or Twitter, at @mchappell51.