INDIANAPOLIS — The second game of Shaquille Leonard’s NFL career was a masterpiece.
A linebacker many considered too small for his position (generously listed at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds) — and one who faced doubts because he played at unheralded South Carolina St. — put together a historic performance.
Leonard entered that game against Washington on Sept. 16, 2018, a relative unknown, but 19 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble later, the Indianapolis Colts’ second-round pick was on his way to becoming one of the NFL’s elite defensive players. It remains the most productive tackle performance by a Colts rookie since at least 1994.
Leonard’s sideline-to-sideline playmaking, his nose for the ball and the energy he brought ensured coaches never considered taking him off the field. He played every snap that day, a trend that held up for most of the next three seasons.
All of which makes it so surprising to hear the 28-year old Leonard beseeching his coaches for more playing time. The 2018 defensive rookie of the year who once was in the conversation of the NFL’s most dominant off-the-ball linebackers, has become a part-time player in his sixth season.
And he’s not a fan.
“It’s kind of hard to make splash plays when you’ve just got to do your job, and then on third down, you’re sitting on the sideline being a cheerleader,” Leonard said recently.
Leonard’s frustration had been simmering for weeks before going on record with his objections. He echoed his complaints again Thursday during his weekly session with reporters. But the situation is further complicated by Leonard’s health, the Colts’ defensive scheme, his passion and past accomplishments.
“Shaq is the ultimate competitor,” Colts coach Shane Steichen said. “He wants to be out there all the time.”
For now, though, it is the determination of the coaching staff that Leonard playing a reduced role is what’s best for the team. Here’s how we got here, how it’s unfolding and what’s next.
The injury impact
Leonard’s injuries the past two seasons — involving nerve issues in his back that impacted his lower body — have been a major setback for the three-time first-team All-Pro. Two surgeries later, he’s still trying to regain his original form.
The surgeries clearly impacted Leonard’s speed and quickness. He’s spent the past year trying to come back from the most recent procedure, performed in November 2022. There has been visible improvement in this area over the course of this season, but Leonard and his coaches disagree on how close he is to his pre-injury form.
“I think I’m very similar to what I’ve seen on tape maybe two years ago,” Leonard said.
The difference, Leonard says, is the specific job he’s being asked to perform and the limitations on his playing time. Leonard led the Colts with 10 tackles (seven solo) in Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers. And he did it in just 39 snaps, 55% of the team’s total defensive plays. What was missing were Leondard’s splash plays.
Whether Leonard can once again provide those remains an ongoing conversation with Leonard and the staff.
“We want them to be out there as much as possible, too,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “So, I understand that part of it.
“I think what was good, if you look deep into his [statements], the part where I think he said, ‘Well, they feel like I’m not making enough splash plays.’ Well, we’re asking everybody to do that, but there’s the accountability part, right? That was there. That, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on. This is what we need from you.'”
Other variables impacting Leonard’s snaps
There are a few factors at work when it comes to determining how much Leonard plays. The first is what has already been established: The Colts want more production from him in the way of game-changing plays, the kind he became known for during his standout seasons.
But there’s also a few other variables. Among them, Bradley said, is the coaches’ evaluation of how much playing time Leonard can handle while still being effective. This is a recognition that he’s still coming off a serious injury, and perhaps, an acknowledgement that Leonard arguably returned too soon last season after his first surgery in June 2022. That led to disappointing results.
“We’re looking at him and saying, ‘How many plays in a row can he go? When is he most effective,'” Bradley said. “And it is a process.”
The Colts had a chance to give Leonard expanded playing time when starting middle linebacker Zaire Franklin missed the win over the Panthers with a knee injury. But when Leonard’s playing time actually decreased in the game, he became even more frustrated.
“That’s when I kind of knew,” he said Thursday. “You’re already not playing on third [down], you’re taking the reps on second down, too? So, it’s very heartbreaking.”
Another factor: The emergence of linebacker E.J. Speed, a 2019 fifth-round pick who earned a contract extension this year and has warranted more playing time. Speed is playing a career-high 50% of defensive snaps compared with Leonard’s 70%.
The Colts hoped there might be opportunities for both players to see extensive playing time together in the team’s base personnel group, but the offensive formations they’ve faced have not allowed for that. In the nickel defense, either Leonard or Speed can be on the field alongside Franklin.
Speed has played most of the third-down reps because the Colts want to take advantage of his range, leaving Leonard on the sideline for some key play-making opportunities — much to his chagrin.
The role of the scheme
Leonard missed 14 games last season, the team’s first in Bradley’s defensive system. As a result, there was minimal opportunity to see how Leonard fit or to evaluate how he performed in it. That made 2023 the first prolonged chance to see Leonard in the system, and that is why the differences in his role are becoming more apparent.
In the Colts’ previous scheme, under former coordinator and current Bears head coach Matt Eberflus, Leonard was a centerpiece of the scheme. He was allowed to roam and fully embrace the run-and-hit role in which he thrived. In the current system, Leonard said, plays tend to flow to the middle linebacker, not Leonard’s weak-side position.
“I’m not as free as I once was in the defense before, so it’s kind of hard to see splash plays,” Leonard said.
This role also requires Leonard to take on many more blocks. This has been problematic, because Leonard is one of the NFL’s smaller linebackers. His size was once an attribute when he was shooting through gaps to tackle ball-carriers or chase quarterbacks. It’s not so much an advantage when he comes face to face with 300-pound guards.
He’s also being asked to play with more structure, and that is less conducive to making the sort of plays on the ball he did in 2021. That year, Leonard registered eight forced fumbles and four interceptions.
The bottom line
The $98 million contract extension Leonard signed in 2021 can’t be ignored amid the current situation. The Colts signed him to that deal on the basis of his game-changing performances and his essential contributions to the defense.
If Leonard is on the field less, would the Colts view the return on their investment differently? It’s not a question the Colts have to answer immediately. They still believe Leonard is progressing in his comeback from the injury and that means their evaluation could change by season’s end.
Leonard has three seasons remaining on his deal but the Colts could theoretically move on after this season. Leonard has a 2024 salary-cap number of $20.124 million but the Colts would save $12 million if Leonard is released.
No one has remotely suggested this is under consideration. But the Colts have shown in the past they’re willing to make difficult decisions at linebacker. Their sharp eye for talent at the position has allowed them to let starters like Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke walk away in recent seasons. They’ve replaced them with younger, lower-cost options that panned out. In the meantime, Leonard’s push to stay on the field continues. And it’s a healthy conversation as far as the Colts are concerned.
“I told Shaq, ‘Don’t bend,'” Bradley said. ” ‘Don’t bend on wanting to be on the field every play. That’s what you need to do.’ And it’s not going to be easy on us as a coaching staff, but that’s OK.”