The Shaquille Leonard sweepstakes have come to an end. The All-Pro free agent has come to terms on a one-year deal with the Eagles, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network tweets. The team has since announced the agreement.
Leonard’s choice was widely understood to be down to the Eagles or the divisional-rival Cowboys. Both teams hosted the veteran linebacker on a visit last week, expressing an interest in a deal provided the terms were reasonable. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expressed a wait-and-see attitude earlier today while awaiting Leonard’s decision, but as Rapoport notes, Philadelphia was always his “preferred destination.”
After both Dallas and Philadelphia hosted Leonard, it became clear he would wait until after the Week 13 slate of Sunday games to decide on his next home. Today’s news means he will join a team other than the Colts for the first time in his career, but his addition could prove to be crucial in the race for the NFC East crown. The Cowboys and Eagles play each other in Week 14, which could very well mark Leonard’s debut for his new employer.
Issues related to playing time led the Colts to move on from the 28-year-old last month. All teams were eligible to add him via waivers, but putting in a claim would have tied them to the remainder of his contract. To no surprise, he cleared and became a free agent. A short list of teams emerged, with the Eagles and Cowboys immediately at the forefront. The Broncos and Vikings were briefly mentioned as potential suitors, but neither squad hosted him on a free agent visit. Now, attention will turn to the Eagles’ general linebacker situation and where Leonard will fit into it.
Zach Cunningham has been dealing with a hamstring injury, and his absence was a major factor in Philadelphia’s pursuit of Leonard. The former was missed during the Eagles’ blowout loss to the 49ers yesterday, a game in which the team’s defense endured a sustained inability to slow down San Francisco’s offense. Leonard could play a part in helping a unit which ranks 23rd and 24th in total and scoring defense, respectively. Especially after Cunningham returns, though, a rotational role will likely await the three-time Pro Bowler.
Leonard has been limited to 12 games across the past two seasons as back issues have led to surgery and signficant missed time. Questions abound regarding his ability to regain his previous form after he logged a snap share of 70% in Indianapolis this season, by far his lowest in a full campaign. The Colts have moved on with younger, less expensive options at the second level, but the Eagles will take a flier on Leonard still being able to make an impact. Philadelphia entered the day with $3.39MM in cap space, meaning today’s deal will not be a lucrative one.
Still atop the division despite yesterday’s loss, the Eagles remain in the driver’s seat for the NFC’s top seed. Leonard will look to give their postseason push a boost and in doing so help his free agent prospects. How he fits into Philadelphia’s defense and the impact he can make will be a key storyline to follow down the stretch.