The Indianapolis Colts dropped a bombshell on Tuesday when they announced the team was waiving superstar linebacker Shaquille Leonard. Leonard, a second-round pick of the Colts in 2018, instantly impacted the defense from the moment he stepped on the field as a rookie. After five and a half years, Leonard's tenure in Indy has ended.
We have waived LB Shaquille Leonard.— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) November 21, 2023
“Colts Nation will always remember The Maniac’s palpable energy on the field with each tackle, interception, punchout, and fumble recovery," Colts owner Jim Irsay said in a statement released by the team. "Off the field, he’s a servant leader and assisted numerous families in both his hometown and the Indianapolis community. We’re thankful for Shaq and the contributions he made to our organization. We wish him and his beautiful family the best moving forward.”
“Shaq is the ultimate competitor and has been a fan favorite since he arrived as a rookie in 2018," stated general manager Chris Ballard. "We are incredibly grateful for his contributions to the team and the city of Indianapolis over the last six seasons. We wish him the best and he will always be a valued member of the Horseshoe.”
In 70 games with the Colts, Leonard tallied 614 tackles, 32 tackles for loss, 15.0 sacks, 12 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles, and seven fumble recoveries. He won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018 and was a four-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler in Indy. The Maniac departs as one of the most decorated defensive players in franchise history.
Leonard had a message for Colts fans, posting on social media how thankful he was for his time in Indianapolis. It was a final goodbye from a fan favorite.
Indy, I thank you 💜 pic.twitter.com/VxMa1VU2IA— Darius Shaquille Leonard (@dsleon45) November 21, 2023
The announcement came as a shock to Colts fans and the football world alike. Had the situation gotten that bad? Why did the Colts decide to waive him now and not after the season? Could something have been worked out?
Let's dive into what happened.
Leonard has been working his way back from back surgery for over a year. It was found that nerve damage in his back was causing pain in his leg and ankle. After an initial surgery in June of 2022, a second surgery in November of 2022 was required to fix the issue.
Since that second surgery, Leonard has been working to regain his old form. The Colts wanted to take things slow with Leonard, erring on the side of caution to not push him back too soon. The team felt that was part of the reason why Leonard had to have a second surgery last season.
Because of taking things slow and allowing Leonard to work his way back into form, the former All-Pro linebacker split snaps with fellow linebacker E.J. Speed. Leonard would play primarily on first and second down, with Speed coming in on third down and obvious passing situations. But as the season went along and Leonard felt like he was getting back to himself, his reps did not increase.
A few weeks ago, Leonard began voicing displeasure with his playing time publicly. He said he had gone to the coaches numerous times about the issue, searching for answers as to why he was not playing more. Leonard even implied that he was having trouble sleeping because of it. He wanted to know what he could do to get on the field more.
"I'm a competitor," Leonard said before the Colts left for Germany. "I want to play. I want to go out there, I want to compete. I put my body through so much, I've worked extremely hard to get to this point and it's frustrating when you're standing on that sideline knowing that you're capable of going out there and competing at a high level and, you know, it sucks. It sucks, but hey, my feelings (do not) win football games, so, it is what it is. (It's) their decision."
But ultimately, the proof was in the tape. While Leonard has played better as the season has progressed, he is still not back to his old form. He has struggled in zone defense and looks much slower than in the past.
Leonard may have played his worst game of the season in Germany against the New England Patriots. According to Pro Football Focus, Leonard's 30.6 overall grade was his lowest of 2023. He has two other games this season with grades below 40.
Not only has Leonard struggled to regain his old form while Speed and Zaire Franklin have played well, but Leonard never seemed like a good fit for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's scheme. Under former defensive coordinator and current Chicago Bears head coach Matt Eberflus, Leonard was allowed to roam free throughout the second level of the defense. It allowed him to use his instincts and get into position to make so many splash plays.
In Bradley's defense, Leonard has to play a specific role. He does not have as much freedom, instead directing the play to other areas of the field. Because of these factors, Leonard has yet to force a turnover all season.
In nine games this season, Leonard has 65 tackles and just two tackles for loss. He has not recorded a sack, interception, or forced fumble. His 70% playing time is also the lowest of his career.
When you combine all of these factors, it seemed inevitable the Colts would be parting ways with Leonard once the season concluded. Leonard was unhappy, and the Colts could not afford to continue to pay the linebacker his large contract if he was not producing. Leonard signed a five-year, $98 million contract in the summer of 2021.
However, as circumstances progressed, things became worse behind the scenes. Because of Leonard's worsening relationship with Bradley, his decline in play, and his decision to voice his displeasure publicly, Ballard and the Colts decided to rip the band-aid off now and waive him. The situation became too much to deal with.
Many thought Leonard had asked for his release himself. However, it has been reported that Leonard did not request to be waived, as it was strictly a team decision.
I was wondering this as well, but I just found out, per a league source, that #Colts LB Shaq Leonard did NOT request to be waived.— James Boyd (@RomeovilleKid) November 21, 2023
It was the team’s decision. —> https://t.co/RiFNQIQuFL https://t.co/9uOcXEhDGH
Thus ends the Shaquille Leonard tenure in Indianapolis. For the Colts, Speed will likely take Leonard's spot in the starting lineup alongside Franklin. Both linebackers have played well this season, and the Colts' defense should not miss a beat.
Leonard's legacy as a Colt will not be forgotten. He leaves as one of the best defensive players in franchise history and someone fans will continue to hold dear in their hearts. From energizing the crowd and defense on Sundays at Lucas Oil Stadium to his impact on the community, Leonard had a tremendous impact on the city of Indianapolis on and off the field.
Colts fans will always remember the game-changing plays Leonard made in his time in Indy and root for him to regain his old form. There is still hope that he may become The Maniac, once again.
It was certainly a pleasure to watch and cover #53 while he was here. A truly electric talent and a great human being.
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