INDIANAPOLIS — In a stunning move, Colts All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard was waived by the team Tuesday, a decision prompted by his declining performance after recent injuries.
Leonard, who returned to the lineup this season after two back surgeries in 2022 to correct nerve issues, was getting inconsistent playing time as he tried to play his way into form. His uneven performance and ongoing recovery prompted coaches to remove him from the lineup on third downs and had him, at times, splitting earlier snaps with E.J. Speed — decisions that did not sit well with Leonard.
In two separate media availabilities, Leonard, 28, complained at length about his usage. After being told he would split reps on early downs, Leonard said, “It sucked hearing that. You’re already not playing on third [down]; you’re taking the reps on second down too? So, it’s very heartbreaking to get that, but it is what it is.”
But there were indications the Colts were underwhelmed by Leonard’s recent performance. Coaches said publicly that they were looking for more splash plays from Leonard. They also had been seeking ways to get Speed on the field. And in the absence of middle linebacker Zaire Franklin in a recent game against Carolina, Leonard did not see an increase in playing time, with the Colts instead turning to backup Segun Olubi to fill the role.
It all led to Tuesday’s abrupt decision.
“These past 6 years have been nothing but incredible!” Leonard wrote in a message posted on social media. “Through the good times and bad time, y’all stood by my side. I apologize for not bringing that trophy back to the 317. The energy at Lucas Oil [Stadium] has been nothing but amazing and I thank you for every memory.”
Indy, I thank you 💜 pic.twitter.com/VxMa1VU2IA
— Darius Shaquille Leonard (@dsleon45) November 21, 2023
Leonard, a 2018 second-round pick and Defensive Rookie of the Year, will be remembered for the clutch playmaking that became his calling card before his injuries. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2018, 2020 and 2021.
In 70 games with Indianapolis, he amassed 32 tackles for losses, 31 passes defended, 12 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries.
“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. “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.
General manager Chris Ballard added: “Shaq is the ultimate competitor and has been a fan favorite since he arrived as a rookie in 2018. 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.”
Ultimately, Leonard’s complaints did not play a role in Tuesday’s decision, according to a team source.
Asked previously about how the delicate situation might be handled, one team source adamantly stated to ESPN: “We will do what is best for the team at the end of the day.”
Because the trade deadline has passed, Leonard must clear waivers before becoming a free agent. His contract is significant. Leonard signed a five-year, $99 million contract in 2021.
That deal was scheduled to run through 2026, with Leonard slated to earn more than $15.7 million in base salary this season. Releasing Leonard saves the Colts more than $16 million in salary cap space in 2024, when he would have had a cap number of $20.1 million.
The Colts filled their open roster spot by signing veteran linebacker Ronnie Harrison Jr. off their practice squad.