March 4, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS — One day after being told he was being benched, linebacker Shaquille Leonard received the surprising news that he was being waived by the Indianapolis Colts on Tuesday.

Leonard, a sixth-year pro and three-time first-team All-Pro selection, said the message hit him hard.

“It was shocking,” Leonard said Tuesday evening as he and teammates distributed 200 Thanksgiving turkeys and sides at a church on the west side of Indianapolis. “I asked for a November meeting. I guess I got a November meeting. I guess you’ve got to be careful what you ask for.”

Leonard and his coaches had been in constant communication lately about his diminished role in the Colts’ defense. It had been a much discussed subject after he had two back surgeries last season to address nerve issues that were impacting his lower body and limiting his explosiveness.

Leonard’s playing time had been inconsistent during his recovery, but coaches told him they would continue to revisit the issue as the season progressed. But after an underwhelming performance by Leonard in the Colts’ last game two weeks ago, his play became even more scrutinized. Instead of expanding Leonard’s play time, Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley told him he was going to be inactive Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That status was likely to stick for the rest of the season, according to a source.

Asked what changed between Monday and Tuesday, Leonard said he was unsure, though he left open the possibility that his pushback over his limited role had an impact on the team’s decision. He had spoken with reporters on multiple occasions in recent weeks about his displeasure with his playing time. Leonard had been sidelined on third downs and was splitting reps on some early downs, too.

“You’re already not playing on third [down], you’re taking the reps on second down, too?” he asked rhetorically two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, Leonard said, “I always say that they say [complaints] are OK until you step on toes. I said that two weeks ago and I still stand by it. 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 long been mulling how to proceed with Leonard. Last week, when asked about the next steps, one team source told ESPN: “We will do what is best for the team at the end of the day.”

In reality, the idea of Leonard standing on the sideline, inactive, for the rest of the season was difficult to envision. Whether the Colts questioned Leonard’s ability to handle the demotion remains unclear, but even Leonard admits his strong personality could be hard to handle.

“Everybody doesn’t understand my drive,” he said. “Everybody doesn’t understand how competitive I am. … It’s cool. There’s no hard feelings.”

Fifth-year player E.J. Speed, who had been splitting reps with Leonard, is expected to take over the starting role at weakside linebacker alongside middle linebacker Zaire Franklin.

Things had been trending this way for a while. Bradley has said publicly the Colts were looking for more splash plays from Leonard. They also had been seeking ways to get Speed on the field more. Then, in the absence of an injured Franklin in a recent game against Carolina, Leonard did not see an increase in playing time. The Colts surprisingly turned to backup Segun Olubi to fill the role.

Leonard, a 2018 second-round pick and Defensive Rookie of the Year, will be remembered for the clutch playmaking that became his calling card before his injuries. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2018, 2020 and 2021.

In 70 games with Indianapolis, he amassed 32 tackles for losses, 31 passes defensed, 12 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.

“Colts Nation will always remember The Maniac’s palpable energy on the field with each tackle, interception, punchout, and fumble recovery,” Colts 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.”

General manager Chris Ballard added: “Shaq is the ultimate competitor.”

Because the trade deadline has passed, Leonard must clear waivers before becoming a free agent despite being a vested veteran. The remaining balance of his $15.7 million base salary for 2023 is guaranteed, but the future parameters of his contract are significant.

Leonard signed a five-year, $99 million contract in 2021. That deal was scheduled to run through 2026, but it contains no guarantees beyond this season. Releasing Leonard saves the Colts more than $16 million in salary cap space in 2024, when he would have had a cap number of $20.1 million. More than $50 million was left to be paid on Leonard’s deal from 2024 to 2026.

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