The news broke on Tuesday afternoon that the Indianapolis Colts were waiving their former All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard, after weeks of Leonard complaining about a decreased role with the team this season. After battling multiple injuries last season, including nerve issues, a concussion, and a broken nose, he never got back to the All-Pro form that we had seen in the past. The Colts are now on the hook for his guaranteed money in his contract unless another team picks him up in waiver, which is not expected to happen.
While this release does not come as a surprise, it does come as a surprise that it happened in season and while in a playoff race. I mentioned in an earlier piece that it appeared that the Colts and Leonard were headed for a divorce but thought it would be in the offseason, as to help them with the dead money aspect on the salary cap. They will have 12 million dollars in dead cap the next two seasons, which is not ideal but manageable. The team will, however, save $55 million over the next three seasons in cap room.
Leonard began to voice his displeasure with his role and playing time with the team the last few weeks, but his play didn’t improve. The Colts can handle the money they owe him now as that was already happening but now this gives them an opportunity to see what other guys on the roster can do down the stretch for next season.
While we can talk about Leonard’s play and the money that Indianapolis will save, what this move really speaks to is Shane Steichen’s culture of accountability.
Accountability will be the basis of the Shane Steichen tenure
This Leonard release is not the first time we have seen Steichen swing his sword and make a move with this roster. Rewind back to the beginning of the season when Jonathan Taylor was on the PUP List and Zack Moss was recovering from his broken arm, Steichen named Deon Jackson the starting running back for Week 1. By Week 3, Jackson was cut after two horrific performances to open the season.
We also saw it with cornerback Darrell Baker Jr., as he struggled as well and was benched for rookie Jaylon Jones. Steichen wants progress and results, or he will not hesitate to have you on unemployment line. The players have noticed, and with Leonard calling out the coaching staff, chirping at them on the sidelines when coming off the field, he became a distraction. Steichen understands that all coaches’ windows are small to achieve the success the franchise is looking for and he intends to maximize the odds of success by keeping his players and his staff honest and accountable.
Where do Colts and Shaq Leonard go from here?
As mentioned above, the timing of this move is a bit surprising, but the reports are that Leonard did not request this and this was a franchise decision after some discussions with Leonard as of late. Simply put, if you are being paid as a top linebacker (or any position) and don’t deliver, then Steichen will not allow you to be part of this teams’ future. The Colts have made the corresponding move of taking safety Rodney Harrison Jr and activating him from the practice squad to the active roster. It appears they will be trying to convert him over to linebacker as he is listed as a linebacker now.
Look for the Colts to continue to rely heavily on EJ Speed and soon to be Pro Bowler Zaire Franklin, who are both having the best seasons of their careers. I would also think we will see an increased role from reserve linebackers Segun Olubi and special teams ace Grant Stuard. Look for general manager Chris Ballard to use a draft pick in 2024 for an off the ball linebacker. Ballard has been a terrific talent evaluator, especially with the linebacker position, making strong draft picks that have produced great results.
As for Leonard, there are a handful of teams that make sense for him. The first team that comes to mind is the Chicago Bears. Leonard showed he is the absolute perfect scheme fit with his former DC Matt Eberflus. The more likely option is going to a contender to finish out his season and then test free agency in 2024, so teams can see if he is truly healthy. Those contenders that might have interest would include Miami, Dallas, Buffalo and Philadelphia.
Leonard has a lot to prove these last several weeks of the season. Without question, Leonard has been a good football player for this franchise, but he has been a better overall person. He is great in the community and off the field with philanthropic activities and donations. In fact, even after getting cut on Tuesday, Leonard honored his annual turkey donation drive and showed up and gave out turkeys to families as he has every season.
We all know that football is a business and Leonard was not living up to his large contract number, and on top of that, he complained about the staff and the way they were using him. A fresh start for both Indianapolis and Leonard might prove to be just what both sides need as the Colts get ready for their playoff run this week as the Colts host Tampa Bay on Sunday.