INDIANAPOLIS — Shaquille Leonard, the seasoned linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts, faced an unexpected turn of events as he was informed on Tuesday that he was not only being benched but also waived by the team. The news hit Leonard hard, who expressed his surprise while participating in a community event where he and his teammates distributed Thanksgiving turkeys and sides at a local church.
Reflecting on the situation, Leonard, a three-time first-team All-Pro selection, revealed that the decision was shocking, emphasizing the abruptness of the development. Despite ongoing discussions with his coaches about his reduced role in the Colts’ defense, Leonard was caught off guard by the sudden shift.
The linebacker’s playing time had been inconsistent, marked by his recovery from two back surgeries last season. The coaching staff had assured him that they would reassess his role as the season progressed. However, after a subpar performance in the Colts’ recent game, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley conveyed that Leonard would be inactive for the upcoming matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with indications that this status would persist for the remainder of the season.
Leonard, perplexed by the swift change, speculated on whether his vocal dissatisfaction with his limited playing time influenced the team’s decision. In recent weeks, he had expressed discontent with his role, particularly being sidelined on third downs and sharing reps on early downs.
Addressing the potential impact of his statements, Leonard acknowledged, “I always say that they say [complaints] are OK until you step on toes. I don’t know if that played a part. Do I think it plays somewhat of a part in it? Yes, because they could see it as a distraction. But I tried to be respectful with my answer.”
The team had been deliberating on how to handle Leonard’s situation, emphasizing that the ultimate decision would prioritize the team’s best interests. Despite the challenges of envisioning Leonard inactive for the entire season, the move became a reality.
Fifth-year player E.J. Speed, who had shared reps with Leonard, is set to assume the starting role at weakside linebacker alongside middle linebacker Zaire Franklin.
Leonard, a former second-round pick and Defensive Rookie of the Year, leaves behind a legacy of clutch playmaking. Despite his recent setbacks, he earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2018, 2020, and 2021, showcasing his impactful contributions over 70 games with the Colts.
As the Colts part ways with Leonard, owner Jim Irsay expressed gratitude for his on-field energy and off-field community service. General manager Chris Ballard lauded Leonard as the “ultimate competitor.” The linebacker, owing to the trade deadline’s passing, must clear waivers before potentially becoming a free agent, with the remaining balance of his 2023 base salary guaranteed.
Leonard’s release, while saving the Colts significant salary cap space, marks the end of an era, leaving behind a player known for his tenacity and game-changing abilities.