When healthy, Shaquille Leonard has been one of the most impactful Colts defenders in decades. Various issues popped up two years ago that have held him out from a significant portion of the team’s regular season games and resulted in multiple surgeries. Issues that have impacted his legs and back derailed one of the most dominant starts to a career for any NFL linebacker in league history. Since the surgeries and recovery, things haven’t been the same.
Nate Atkins of the Indianapolis Star highlighted Leonard’s ongoing battle with patience as he hopes to rediscover his role as a defensive stalwart. While Leonard’s competitive fire burns bright, his path back to the field has been carefully monitored with the hopes that he will stay on the field this time and return to performing at peak levels.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Leonard desires to be on the field “24/7” and at “100%.” However, his return comes with a timeline prioritizing health over immediate gratification. As Leonard expressed, his patience was “thrown out the window.”
In this adjustment period, Leonard’s presence on the field is not the only storyline that deserves the spotlight. Zaire Franklin, having a Pro Bowl season, has been an NFL standout. Franklin’s performance has been instrumental in the Colts' defensive identity.
Equally noteworthy is the rise of E.J. Speed, who has emerged as a legitimate impact player. Joining the NFL from the relatively small Tarleton State, Speed’s development into a key defensive asset is a testament to the front office, coaching staff, and his hard work and perseverance. His ability to share snaps with Leonard has led to greater adaptability for the Colts’ defense.
The Colts coaching staff has the challenge of balancing Leonard’s eagerness with his well-being. As Steichen noted, Leonard is a “tremendous football player” whose success in the league is undeniable. The careful management of his return reflects a long-term vision where health and performance converge.
As November approaches, the expectation is for Leonard to reclaim his every-down role gradually.
The hard part of the National Football League shines through far too often. The fanbase wants nothing more than to see Leonard back on the field, creating turnovers and impacting the game - the return of the Maniac. But injuries have derailed numerous careers, which is an all too familiar experience in Indianapolis.
The rise of Franklin and Speed is good for the Colts and allows the staff to give Leonard time to get right. The rise of younger players can also change the trajectory of other team members, and given Leonard’s sizable contract, his ability to get back on the field and impact games will impact where he plays, or if he continues playing, next year.