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Analyzing the Colts’ surprising release of former All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard

While the move itself wasn’t all that surprising, the Colts release of Shaquille Leonard in-season certainly was.

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts released former NFL All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard on Tuesday.

While the move itself wasn’t surprising, as both sides have been headed down this rocky road of ultimately parting ways for at least a few weeks, the timing of it unquestionably was.

Similar to when the Colts fired ex-head coach Frank Reich in season last year, this move was a bit shocking entering Week 12 and the regular season’s final stretch.

So how did we get here?

Specifically, how did the Colts unceremoniously part ways in season with the greatest linebacker in Indianapolis franchise history?

Well for starters, the 4x NFL All-Pro linebacker has been a shell of his former self since undergoing two back surgeries to correct a lingering back and lower leg nerve issue. Leonard just doesn’t have the same speed, athleticism, and flexibility he once did.

In Leonard’s defense, he’s also been miscast as a ‘Will’ in Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme, which doesn’t allow him the ability to freelance and find the football in order to make plays like he once did at the second level of Indy’s defense.

Compounding Leonard’s diminished play is that he’d been quite vocal publicly regarding his limited playing time not once, but twice. This is despite following the first incident, his head coach Shane Steichen indicating that he’d prefer to keep such conversations in-house.

Prior to his release, Leonard was being subbed out on passing downs and in nickel packages in favor of E.J. Speed, as part of a platoon, who’s really shined in such a role.

Leonard’s a fierce competitor, and he’s not the first once former elite athlete to fail to realize that his physical skills have diminished. Instead, believing he still has fully what it takes athletically. Realizing it far too late after the rest of us already know the difficult truth.

Lastly, Leonard was simply due a lot of money, and he’d been vastly underperforming this season relative to his lucrative contact. The Colts can’t pay big money going forward to essentially a limited two-down linebacker right now. This moves saves the Colts an upwards of $60M with just dead salary cap hits of $8M (2024) and $4M (2025) respectively.

The Colts provided Leonard ten weeks in order to give him the benefit of the doubt and work his way back into his old ‘Maniac’ form—with up to this boiling over point, middling returns.

At a certain point, the rubber has to meet the road.

After all, this is still a fringe AFC playoff team competing for a potential wild card berth, and as general manager Chris Ballard has indicated before, the ‘locker room knows’ regarding who’s performing relative to their contact status.

It was hard to reasonably justify giving Leonard extended snaps—and within that locker room, when Speed clearly appears to be the superior playing option right now, especially as it relates to actually competing and winning football games.

The release of Leonard was clearly inevitable, as both sides have been approaching this critical crossroads for a once decidedly great player. However, most expected that sentimental cut to occur some time this upcoming offseason, maybe even early on.

Instead, the Colts pull off the band-aid regarding a difficult decision that has seemingly been a foregone conclusion for quite a while now regarding a former fan favorite and truly elite player at his position respectively.

While no doubt tough, it was in the best interests of the team right now—and for the future.