NOVEMBER 22: As expected, Leonard cleared waivers today, per The Athletic’s Dianna Russini. Detached from his lucrative Colts contract, the standout linebacker is now a free agent.
NOVEMBER 21: After steady complaints about his diminished role, Shaquille Leonard will be changing teams. The perennial All-Pro linebacker will shockingly become available; Leonard announced Tuesday the Colts are cutting him. Indianapolis has announced the separation.
This comes barely two years after the Colts authorized a record-setting extension for the former second-round success story, but Leonard has not been a fit in Gus Bradley‘s defensive system. After an injury-plagued 2022, Leonard has not returned to a full-time workload this season. Although Leonard bristled about his usage, Fox59’s Mike Chappell notes he did not ask the Colts to cut him.
A force in Matt Eberflus‘ defense, Leonard signed a five-year, $98.5MM extension before the 2021 season. The Colts owe Leonard $6.11MM in remaining base salary this season — should no team claim him — and the AFC South club is on the hook for an additional $8MM in dead money due to prorated signing bonus. This cut’s full cost to the Colts will not be determined until waivers process.
Certain teams do have the cap space to pick up the remainder of Leonard’s 2023 base salary, a move that would help the Colts on the financial front. But ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler notes Leonard is expected to clear waivers. No fully guaranteed money is attached to this contract beyond 2023. This will set up one of the more interesting in-season free agency derbies in recent years.
“Shaq is the ultimate competitor and has been a fan favorite since he arrived as a rookie in 2018,” Colts GM Chris Ballard said. “We are incredibly grateful for his contributions to the team and the city of Indianapolis over the last six seasons. … He will always be a valued member of the Horseshoe.”
Leonard, 28, earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2018, 2020 and ’21 and was a second-team choice in 2019. The Division I-FCS product became a turnover-forcing machine during Eberflus’ four-year run as Indy’s DC. In 2021 alone, Leonard caused an astounding 12 turnovers — four INTs, an NFL-most eight forced fumbles — to help the Colts to the playoff precipice. Over the course of his career, Leonard has forced 17 fumbles and intercepted 12 passes.
The 49ers, Browns, Cardinals and Bengals each hold more than $10MM in cap space, while a handful of other teams carry more than $7MM. It would be interesting to see if a team submits a claim in an effort to secure Leonard’s rights beyond 2023; his current contract runs through 2025. The Bears come to mind as a team that could be interested, as they have made buyer’s trades despite holding one of the league’s worst records in back-to-back years. Eberflus also coached Leonard throughout his Indianapolis tenure, though Chicago did spend top-five ILB money on Tremaine Edmunds this offseason. T.J. Edwards signed a midlevel Bears deal as well, potentially cutting Chicago off early here. The Cowboys and Eagles pursued linebackers at the deadline as well — Nick Sirianni was on Frank Reich‘s Colts staff for three years — while the Steelers have lost two regulars for the season.
Leonard is also coming off a year in which he underwent two back surgeries. After a summer 2022 procedure did not clear up the issue, Leonard was eventually shut down in November of last year. He ended up playing three games in the Reich-Jeff Saturday season, also suffering a concussion and a broken nose, but was ready to go for Week 1 of this year. Bradley, however, refused to use Leonard as his play-calling predecessor did. Leonard (454 defensive snaps) logged a 70% snap rate this season. His snap shares from 2018-21: 98%, 98%, 93%, 98%.
In addition to Leonard being unhappy with his role under Bradley, Pro Football Focus ranks the once-dominant defender outside the top 60 among off-ball linebackers this season. Leonard has made 65 tackles in nine games, but just two of those were for losses; the sixth-year ‘backer also does not have a fumble forced, fumble recovered or an INT this season.
The Colts have used Zaire Franklin on more defensive plays (634), and the recently re-signed E.J. Speed has logged 357 defensive snaps. This duo will represent a lower-cost pair compared to Leonard, whom the Colts did not believe was living up to his lucrative contract. The Colts could have hung on and saved some money by cutting Leonard in 2024; that move would have created $12MM in cap savings for the retooled team. But the now-Shane Steichen-led squad will attempt to make a playoff push without one of the most productive defenders in franchise history.
It will obviously be interesting to see where Leonard lands and if he can prove Bradley and Co. wrong. Claims for Leonard must be submitted by 3pm CT Wednesday. Beyond that, Leonard figures to have a few suitors in free agency.