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On mid Tuesday, November 21st, 2023 Colts fans received some shocking news. Shaquille Leonard was waived by the team in a surprising midseason move. While some had speculated that Leonard would be cut after the season as a cap-saving move, releasing a team captain in the middle of the season is rare. For a player who has been a 3x 1st Team All-Pro and 1x 2nd Team All-Pro in his 5.5 seasons with a team, a midseason cut is practically unheard of.

With this marking the end of Leonard’s time with the Colts, let’s take this time to look back at his career in Indianapolis, his impact on and off the field, and what has led to this sudden departure.

 

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

 

2018: From “Worst Pick in the Draft” to Defensive Rookie Of the Year

 

Shaquille Leonard’s NFL journey began with an unheralded yet dominant start. As a prospect, Leonard was dinged by pundits for several factors:

  • His play strength was questioned at 6’2 234lbs
  • His timed speed at the combine was 4.7 on the 40, however the context was he pulled his hamstring on his 1st attempt. Watching the tape showed a much faster player, though some pundits didn’t before calling him slow.
  •  He was a small school FCS player at South Carolina State. How would he do against NFL talent consistently (had a big game vs South Carolina)?

 

With these potential “dings”, Leonard being taken 36th overall was a shock to several experts. One went so far as to say that Leonard was the worst pick in the NFL Draft, preferring for the Colts to take RBs like Ronald Jones, Kerryon Johnson, or Derrius Guice at that pick. That take in particular became a source of motivation for Leonard.

Colts knew even before the season that they got a potentially special player in Shaquille Leonard. On the 1st Training Camp practice, Leonard made a spectacular leaping INT in the middle of the field, shocking then Colts QB Andrew Luck. The pick served as a big confidence boost for Leonard and an indication of what was to come.

 

In Week 2 of the 2018 NFL Season, Leonard made his 1st breakout performance.

  • 19 Total Tackles
  • 15 Solo Tackles
  • 1 Tackle For Loss
  • 1 QB Hit
  • 1 Sack
  • 1 Forced Fumble
  • 1 Pass Defended

 

The dominance was on full display in Washington, as the Maniac was unleashed. Easy Defensive Player of the Week win performance. A potential fluke? Leonard shut that notion down with a 13 tackle (9 solo), 5 Tackles for Loss, 2 Sacks, 2 QB Hits, and 1 pass deflection game against the Philadelphia Eagles the very next week.

 

Leonard with consistently dominant performances and game-changing play highlights solidified himself as one of the game’s best as the year went on. With practically every game he played, it seemed he became the bane of a new opposing fanbase with some insane play.

 

  • Week 6 it was the Jets with a tomahawk chop at a ball for a forced fumble. Week 7 it was the Bills 17 tackle (12 solo) performance capped off with a fumble recovery deep in Colts territory.
  • Week 8 it was the Oakland Raiders with a punch out fumble on Doug Martin late in the 4th Quarter with the Raiders down by a Touchdown.
  • Week 11 it was the Titans with a Sack, his 1st INT, and a Forced Fumble.
  • Week 12 he blew up a blindside blocker to get a sack on Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill.
  • In Weeks 4 and 14 he sacked Texans QB Deshaun Watson while also racking up 25 tackles.
  • Week 15 he had a 4th down pass deflection on man coverage vs Cole Beasley in the slot.
  • Week 17 he secured the Colts a playoff spot with a game ending INT vs the Titans.
  • In the playoffs he got 13 tackles in the Wild Card against the Texans and Forced a Fumble vs the Chiefs in the Divisional Round.

 

By the time the season ended, the name Darius Leonard was ingrained in many experts’ minds as one of the best Linebackers in the NFL. With one of the most impressive stat lines for a rookie off-ball linebacker in NFL History, Leonard was an easy Defensive Rookie of the Year choice and 1st Team All-Pro.

 

 

Despite missing one game due to a concussion, Leonard recorded:

  • 163 Total Tackles (Franchise Record until 2022 & Led NFL)
  • 10.86 Tackles per game (most by a Rookie in NFL History)
  • 111 Solo Tackles (led NFL)
  • 12 Tackles For Loss
  • 7 sacks (most by a rookie offball LB since Brian Urlacher in 2000, only blitzed 28 times)
  • 8 QB Hits
  • 8 Passes Defended
  • 2 INTs
  • 4 Forced Fumbles
  • 2 Fumble Recoveries

 

However, Leonard was not honored with a Pro Bowl nod, as he didn’t get enough of the fan popular vote to secure a spot. This became further fuel for the young Linebacker.

 

2019: The 1st Team All-Pro Snub Year

 

After an insane rookie season, some worried about a “sophomore slump” for Leonard. Those doubts were silenced with another dominant season. Leonard became only the 5th player in NFL history to record at least 100 tackles, 5 sacks, and 5 INTs in a season. Combined with 7 TFLs, 6 Passes Defended, and 2 Forced fumbles, it is safe to say Leonard was a big impact player once again.

Some notable highlights included an 82-yard pick 6 vs Tampa Bay (his 2nd INT of the day), bobbled INT and vicious subsequent stiff arm vs the Texans to end the game, and a 2-sack performance vs the Titans.

 

However, injuries were more of a problem this year, with Leonard missing 3 games due to another concussion. Because of that missed time, he controversially was not on the 1st Team All Pro Team, instead being relegated to 2nd Team by DeMario Davis. Leonard did make his first Pro Bowl at least, showing that fans across the league had come recognize him as one of the best LBs in the NFL. But the 2nd Team nod gave Leonard more motivation once again to prove someone wrong.

 

 

2020: Return To The Top

 

Entering Year 3, Leonard was easily one of the consensus best LBs in the NFL, despite never getting 1st Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl bids in the same year so far. Leonard’s goal: to make his status as an elite LB undeniable.

In 14 games he did just that. Another stat-stuffing season filled with insane plays. 132 tackles in that span with 3 sacks, 3 Forced Fumbles, and 3 INTs. The biggest highlight? A clutch goal line forced fumble vs the Texans to end the game and secure a Colts victory.

 

 

Leonard still didn’t stay fully healthy for the year, with 2 games missed due to a groin injury. Despite yet another season with multiple missed games, Leonard became the 1st player in NFL History with 400+ tackles and 15+ Sacks in his first 3 seasons of his career.

 

2021: The Gritty Final All-Pro Year

 

2021 marked the beginning of the end of Leonard’s time in Indy in hindsight, though few would have thought so. Rewarded with a fresh 5-year, $99.25 million extension, the expectation for the Maniac was that he would be a long-term dominant piece to the Colts Defense. And for the year, Leonard played more games than any other in his career with 16 out of 17. Little did we know that Leonard’s ankle injury would usher a career trajectory change.

 

 

For 2021 at least, it was clear throughout that Leonard wasn’t quite the same. His range and speed were diminished as the reported ankle injury limited his athletic abilities. This caused him to have his lowest tackle rate per game for his career thus far (7.625), his highest Yards After Catch per Reception (6.3) in his career, as well as limiting his blitzing ability (0 sacks). He simply looked more sluggish on tape.

Leonard’s playmaking abilities however reached their apex. Despite his physical limitations, Leonard attacked the ball with even more ferocity than ever before. You’d think after 3 years ball carriers and QBs would protect the football more around Leonard? Well that lesson wasn’t learned, as Leonard had an NFL leading 8 Forced Fumbles to go with 4 INTs (including one with another maniacal stiff arm vs the Patriots). Leonard cemented himself as the LB version of Charles “Peanut” Tillman with his knack for punching out footballs from ball carriers. From 2018-2021, no NFL defender was a part of more Turnovers than Leonard (28). He even passed many notable Hall of Fame Defenders in forced fumbles in just the first 4 years of his career.

 

 

Leonard once again was rewarded with a 1st Team All Pro nod and a Pro Bowl bid. Despite his ankle injury, he was still on top of the world in LB hierarchy.

 

 

His career was off to a historically good first 4-year pace, one of the best we’ve seen at the LB position in the last 20 years.

 

2022: The Lost Year

 

Remember the ankle injury of 2021? Yeah, turns out that was a back injury and due to nerve issues, Leonard felt the pain in his ankle/calf too. Due to this initial misdiagnosis, Leonard needed surgery in June of 2022 to correct the issue. Due to this late in the offseason surgery, Leonard missed training camp, the preseason and the first 3 games of the 2022 season.

 

Making his debut in Week 4 vs the Titans, Leonard played 16 snaps before suffering a concussion and bloody nose. This then knocked him out of the game and made him miss the next 3 afterward. The Colts were careful with Leonard coming back from injury at first, not starting him in Weeks 8 and 9 and letting him have a more rotational role due to emerging LBs like Zaire Franklin and EJ Speed stepping into bigger roles alongside Leonard’s partner in crime Bobby Okereke. However, the injury still got reaggravated, forcing Leonard to go to season-ending IR.

With just 3 games played and albeit partially, 11 tackles (8 solo), 1 INT, and 1 Pass Defended, Leonard’s 2022 season felt like a lost one. While the Colts were still able to get really strong play from the rest of their LB core (particularly fellow 2018 Draftmate Zaire Franklin breaking Leonard’s franchise single-season tackle record), the Colts missed Leonard’s game-changing play ability. The Defense as a whole regressed for the first time in his career to be outside the top 10 in turnovers forced in the NFL.

 

On top of the injury, this was also the 1st season that Leonard had a new Defensive Coordinator in his career. After 4 years with Matt Eberflus as his DC, 2022 was the 1st year under current DC Gus Bradley. With a new DC comes both a new scheme and fresh eyes to evaluate players. As such, Shaq Leonard was shifted from a WILL LB to a MIKE LB in the Gus scheme.

 

2023: The End

 

Finally, we get to the present year, 2023. The nagging back/ankle injury was rehabbed in the offseason and Leonard got a full training camp and preseason. He missed week 5 vs the Titans with a groin injury, but besides that has started and played in every game so far. However, Leonard’s snap counts have not been as consistent in 2023 as years past. His snap % was the 6th highest on the Colts so far with 63.81% of the snaps, 2nd among Colts LBs behind Zaire Franklin’s 88.78%.

EJ Speed has emerged as a legitimate threat to his snap counts at 49.93% in a modern game where nickel (2 LB) sets are more frequent than base (3 LB) sometimes out-snapping Leonard in a game. Even Segun Olubi has gotten more snaps in one game (100% vs Panthers vs 54.9%) than Leonard has at some point in the season. Bradley explained on October 3rd his justification for the inconsistent snaps for the Maniac.

 

 

Leonard however has been quite vocal about his displeasure in lack of snaps in recent weeks.

 

 

Multiple weeks of calling out coaches in the media demanding more playing time. Leonard wanted to compete and wanted to be the guy. However, the Colts preferred to rotate their LBs more than in previous schemes and wanted to evaluate Leonard’s health while giving other good snap counts.

 

So far in 2023, Leonard has had 65 tackles (34 solo) in 2023 in his limited role. However, Shaq’s lack of solo tackles compared to years past compounded with his lack of sacks, Forced Fumbles, INTs, and passes defended all point to a regression in his playmaking ability. And on tape, the tale is even worse, with Leonard still showing limited mobility and agility.

Whether it was Leonard’s physical limitations and now lack of playmaking, his backups outperforming him in key areas, his massive contract and subsequent cap savings ($55m over the next 3 seasons), his media statements, or a new coaching staff and scheme or even a combination of some of the above, Leonard was waived by the Colts.

 

According to reports, Shaquille Leonard was NOT waived because he made a request to be so. While Leonard was informed of being benched this last Monday by Gus Bradley, Bradley was NOT the decision maker for his waive. That call was made by Ballard, Steichen, and Irsay.

 

After being informed of his benching on Monday, the decision and news of Leonard’s waiving was revealed on Tuesday. Speaking at his annual Thanksgiving Turkey Drive, Leonard provided the timeline and his perspective on his waiving.

 

 

 

Both GM Chris Ballard and HC Shane Steichen spoke highly of Leonard once news broke of his waiving, giving thanks to him for his impact on and off the field as both a player and leader.

 

 

 

What is Darius Shaquille Leonard’s Legacy?

 

Looking back at Leonard’s time in Indianapolis, what is his lasting legacy?

When healthy, Shaquille Leonard was the most dominant LB in Colts history. His playmaking, passion, & constant energy brought a spark to the Colts Defense. The closest comparable impact on the field among Colts legends is probably 2007 DPOY Bob Sanders. A force of nature when on the field with the ability to make game-changing plays, the comparison is apt.

 

Off the field, Leonard made plenty of impact as well. Leonard was an advocate for #KickingTheStigma, opening up about his struggles with anxiety & depression. He learned how to be Okay with not being Okay and reached out to others in his struggles. Shaquille Leonard went through not just physical pain but dealt with his dad and sister getting sick, losing his cousin & even at one point fell out of love with football in 2021.

Even before then, he went through having 2 brothers in prison and another one killed earlier in his life. But despite those struggles, he kept fighting, kept communicating with others, and tried to rally people by being a light in their lives. He even opened up a mental health hotline with his foundation to help with others going through their own struggles.

 

 

On top of his battles against mental health issues in himself and for others, Shaquille Leonard was an advocate for the community as a whole. Turkey Drives, Backpack giveaways, HBCU donations, sponsoring Christmas Toy and Back to School Shopping Days, Math Maniacs, Football camps, and creating Design scholarship programs, Leonard was able to be a constant source of good in the community.

 

Through his efforts through his Maniac Foundation, Shaq Leonard was able to be the Colts Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. Both his stories and his charitableness have helped so many people’s lives. Regardless of how his time with the Colts ended, he will continue to remain a fan favorite for years to come.

 

Injuries will make Colts fans think of what could’ve been with Leonard in Indy, but let’s not undersell what his legacy was as a Colt. Shaquille Leonard embodied what being a Colt meant: an intense and passionate drive for excellence combined with a deep sense of compassion and service towards others. He brought joy to so many on and off the field, despite his own personal struggles. From the bottom of many a Colts fan’s hearts, we wish him the best of luck in both his career and his life going forward. Indianapolis was honored to have him as a member of our community, and he will always have a home here.

From all of us at The Blue Stable and the Colts fandom,

Thank You Maniac

 

More from The Blue Stable:

2024 Indianapolis Colts Mock Draft 2.0: Midseason

Jay Robins

Twitter: @RobinsLucas Instagram: Lucas._.Robins

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