INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Shaquille Leonard was a surprising immediate hit with the Indianapolis Colts in 2018.
His departure Tuesday was every bit as shocking.
Indy waived the three-time All-Pro linebacker after he complained publicly about decreased playing time this season as the Colts prepare to face Tampa Bay following a bye week. Leonard initially responded to the move with a social media post thanking Colts fans.
“It was the biggest surprise ever,” Leonard told reporters during a previously scheduled Thanksgiving giveaway event. “It was shocking. I asked for a November meeting, guess I got a November meeting. I guess you better be careful what you ask for. They came up to me after team photos, we had team photos Monday and (defensive coordinator) Gus (Bradley) walked up to me and said ‘Hey, 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.
“Walking away with seven games left, it hurts. It hurts.”
The 28-year-old Leonard provided many memories for the Colts (5-5), too
The second-round draft pick quickly won the hearts and minds of fans and teammates with his playmaking skills, his patented punch to jar footballs loose, his unending energy and the fighting spirit of an underdog who faced every challenge head on.
Some draft analysts thought Indy “reached” by taking Leonard with the 36th overall draft pick in 2018. Leonard took offense and wound up leading the league with a franchise-record 163 tackles. He won the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2018.
Leonard joined left guard Quenton Nelson as the first rookie teammates to be selected first team All-Pros since Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers (Bears) in 1965.
It was only the start.
Leonard made three All-Pro teams and three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons, becoming one of the league’s most feared defenders.
He was rewarded in 2021 with a five-year contract extension worth $99.25 million, which made him the NFL’s highest-paid off-the-ball linebacker. He was best known for his ability to chase down opponents and his penchant for creating turnovers.
“Shaq is the ultimate competitor and has been a fan favorite since he arrived as a rookie in 2018,” general manger Chris Ballard said in a statement. “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.”
But even though he appeared to be his usual self in 2021, leading the league in forced fumbles (eight), he was hurting. Leonard played through significant leg pain, which was later determined to be a nerve injury that required back surgery before the 2022 season.
Leonard missed Indy’s first three games and in his season debut, he suffered a concussion and a fractured nose in a violent collision with teammate Zaire Franklin. Leonard missed three more games, returned for two more and then had season-ending back surgery to again repair the nerve.
Later, he admitted he came back too soon, so Indy played it safe this year. The Colts limited his snaps in training camp, preseason and the regular season by taking him off the field on third downs. One reason was to keep him healthy. Another was to give developing linebacker E.J. Speed more chances.
“It (stinks) that you’re already not playing on third (down), and then you’re taking down the reps on first and second,” Leonard said earlier this month. “It’s very heartbreaking to hear that, but it is what it is. I’ve just got to continue to get better, continue to play hard, continue to be the best guy I can for this team and for this defense.”
It appeared things were back on track following a victory over New England in Germany. He had nine tackles in that game, giving him 30 over a three-game span as the Colts climbed back to. 500 and put themselves back in the playoff mix.
“Now he’s more in the mix where you’re seeing, he had seven, eight tackles,” Bradley said Tuesday before the announcement. “I think that’s the next progression we looked at, to get him more in the mix and get a good feel where he’s at and where he’s at at this stage.”
Leonard had 614 tackles, 32 for loss, 31 passes defensed, 17 forced fumbles, 15 sacks, 12 interceptions, seven fumble recoveries and one touchdown in 5 1/2 seasons with the Colts. This year, he had 65 tackles in nine games but no sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries.
Leonard won Indy’s Ed Block Courage Award last year, was the team’s 2022 nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award and the South Carolina State alum was an avid supporter of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), too.
“Colts Nation will always remember ‘The Maniac’s’ palpable energy on the field with each tackle, interception, punchout, and fumble recovery,” team 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.”
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