The Indianapolis Colts recently made the tough decision to release star linebacker Shaquille Leonard. The move was the latest example of how brutal the business is and how fast things can change. Just a couple of years ago, everyone was ready to put Leonard into the Hall of Fame. He started his career by making four straight All-Pro teams and three Pro Bowls. In 2021, Shaq Leonard had a season that was worthy of winning Defensive Player of the Year, the Colts made him the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL, and he was expected to remain a pillar of the franchise for many more years. Then, 2022 happened.
In 2022, Leonard had two back surgeries in the span of five months and was limited to just 74 snaps over three games. While everyone hoped to leave that season in 2022, the effects of the year carried over into 2023. This season, Leonard was left trying to find a consistent role on the team while also searching for the old, elite version of himself. With his massive contract, and a deep linebacker room, the Colts felt it was time for Leonard to continue his search elsewhere.
While it’s definitely sad, there aren’t many people arguing that it was the wrong move. Sure, the timing was awkward, but still, if not now, it had become increasingly clear that Leonard would be cut during the offseason. Since he hadn’t returned to his best self, the Colts wouldn’t be able to justify paying out his contract, especially with Zaire Franklin and EJ speed playing as well as they are.
For Colts fans, who have an unfortunate history with injuries impacting the career of great players, the entire situation is a bit reminiscent of Peyton Manning’s exit with the team. Now Peyton had been with the franchise for 14 years, won a Super Bowl, and was 35 when he left Indy, but still, he was forced out by the franchise after an unfortunate neck injury. The question is: can Leonard rebound the way Manning did after leaving the Colts?
Will Shaquille Leonard bounce back post Colts like Peyton Manning did?
A lot of people thought Manning’s neck injury was the end for one of the greatest quarterback’s the NFL has ever seen. Manning quickly proved those people wrong. After signing with the Denver Broncos in 2012, Manning would play four more seasons before hanging up his cleats. In those four seasons, Manning went to three Pro Bowls, was named First-Team All-Pro twice, won an MVP in a season where he led the league in passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55), both NFL records, and he and Denver went to two Super Bowls, winning one.
The four-year run in Denver led to many people thinking that the Colts might have made a mistake by letting him go. Indy did end up drafting Andrew Luck No. 1 overall in 2012, and he was great, but still, plenty of people wondered: what if? Now, it’s fair to wonder if history will repeat itself for the franchise.
It’s an honest assessment to say that Leonard hasn’t played up to par in 2023, however, that doesn’t mean that he and his career are on a permanent decline. There are a ton of factors at play when evaluating Leonard’s performance this year. For starters, the aforementioned two back surgeries in a five-month span, along with the fact that Leonard only played 74 snaps in 2022. Regardless of how great these players are as athletes, it can take some time to recover from a situation like that. Leonard not immediately being all the way back doesn’t mean that he isn’t on a trajectory to being the player that he was once.
There’s also the factor of defensive schemes. During Leonard’s dominance, he was the focal piece in Matt Eberflus’ defense. Now, the Colts are running Gus Bradley’s defense. When Bradley arrived in 2022, he and his staff identified Zaire Franklin as the perfect linebacker for the scheme to be built around. Franklin has since blossomed into stardom, deservingly so. We can’t ignore what that means for Leonard’s production, though.
Since he only played 74 snaps last season, 2023 was essentially Shaq Leonard’s first year in Gus Bradley’s scheme. If we recall, Kenny Moore II struggled a lot in year one with Bradley. After tough conversations in the offseason led to Bradley and Moore getting on the same page, Kenny Moore II is playing the best football of his career after Bradley adjusted the scheme to Moore’s abilities. Who’s to say some of Leonard’s struggles aren’t also just growing pains in a new system?
Ultimately, the future will reveal all. Is it possible that Leonard’s best football is behind him? Absolutely. Leonard may actually be on the decline and fans may just have to hold on to his first four seasons as they reminisce about what he once was. But, it’s also possible that Shaq Leonard is just in the middle of an arduous climb back to being the player that he once was. At just 28 years old, six years into his career, Leonard could still have some great football in front of him.
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