INDIANAPOLIS — Shaq Leonard is itching to make an impact, to play every snap and to once again be “The Maniac.”
Through his first four years in the NFL, Leonard was on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory with three first-team All-Pro nods and one second-team All-Pro selection. He was everywhere, evidenced by the 538 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 17 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and 11 interceptions he accumulated during that span.
But since then, Leonard hasn’t been that game-changing player. He underwent two back surgeries in five months last year that limited him to just three games. After admittedly rushing back too soon in 2022, Leonard returned fully healthy this year and trusted his team to help ease him back into the fold. However, Leonard is now tired of easing. He wants to be let off the leash.
“My patience has kind of been thrown out the window,” Leonard said last week. “I want to be on the field. If I want to buy a ticket, I can sit in the stands.”
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Leonard followed up his comments with a season-high 11 tackles against the New Orleans Saints, which prompted him to again lobby for a larger role as the Indianapolis Colts prepare to play Sunday at Carolina. He noted that some of his lack of production this season is due to scheme changes. Leonard thrived in former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ system, but he never had the chance to get fully acclimated in Gus Bradley’s system last season, and this year he’s being used in a limited role. Leonard played at least 93 percent of the Colts’ defensive snaps in each of his first four seasons under Eberflus compared to 72 percent under Bradley in 2023.
Last month, Bradley said the team would like to get Leonard “back sometime in November to where we have an ideal feel for where he’s at.” It’s now November, and while Leonard thinks he’s returned to peak form, his team may not feel the same way.
“I think I’m very similar to what I’ve seen on tape maybe two years ago,” Leonard said, referencing his first-team All-Pro selection in 2021. “But it’s just different this year. Either I’m hammering the ball back to Zaire (Franklin) or spilling it into the safety. I’m not as free as I once was in the defense before.”
One of Leonard’s biggest sources of frustration is his lack of third-down opportunities, which clearly indicates the Colts don’t believe he’s as impactful as he used to be, though Bradley and head coach Shane Steichen would never admit that publicly. Indianapolis’ defense — which is giving up a league-high 28.6 points per game — has played 116 third-down snaps this season, per TruMedia. Leonard has been on the field for 19 of them (16.4 percent) versus 113 for Franklin and 103 for E.J. Speed, who’ve emerged as the team’s top two linebackers.
Leonard hasn’t forced any turnovers this season, and he’s only made four “splash plays.” TruMedia considers splash plays to be a player’s combined number of sacks, tackles for loss, pressures leading to throwaways, run and pass stuffs, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, passes defended, and stops on third and fourth downs. Franklin leads Indianapolis with 25 splash plays, and Speed is tied for second alongside defensive tackle DeForest Buckner with 22.
“It’s kind of tough to make splash plays when you just gotta do your job and then on third down you’re sitting on the sideline being a cheerleader,” Leonard said. “That’s the only difference, so I just gotta go out and continue to be the best version of myself. Play with great technique, play with great effort and when the plays come, just do my job and hope we get off the field.”
Leonard didn’t express any optimism when asked if he thinks he’ll receive more playing time during the second half of the season. Steichen said he’s spoken to Leonard about his role and declined to go into detail, though he appreciates Leonard’s passion.
“Shaq is the ultimate competitor,” Steichen said. “He wants to be out there all of the time. We have conversations throughout the week. I’ve talked to him, our defensive coaches have talked to him, and I’ll keep those things private. But again, we evaluate those things every week, and he’s the ultimate competitor. I’ll leave it at that.”
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Leonard may receive an increased role by default if Franklin, who did not practice this week and is questionable to play Sunday at Carolina, won’t be available. Rookie swing tackle Blake Freeland (back), rookie wide receiver Josh Downs (knee) and safety Rodney Thomas II (knee) are questionable as well. Rookie cornerback JuJu Brents (quad) and right tackle Braden Smith (wrist/hip) will miss their second and fourth straight games, respectively.
Beyond this upcoming game, the elephant in the room is whether or not Leonard’s career with the Colts will continue beyond this season. The 28-year-old inked a five-year, $98.5 million extension in August 2021 and still has three years and $46.8 million left on his deal. If he’s unable to regain his superstar form and unwilling to restructure his contract at a significantly lower price point, the Colts could release Leonard this offseason and only have an $8 million dead cap hit in 2024. But that’s a conversation for a later date.
Leonard emphasized that while he’s not thrilled about his decreased playing time and being subbed out on third downs, as a team captain he’ll keep a level head for the betterment of the group.
“Being a leader, it comes with many hats,” Leonard said. “Even in times of adversity, you still gotta be that guy to lead the team, no matter what your role is. If I’m on the bench or I’m playing, I’m gonna be that same guy regardless. I’m gonna cheer for the guys. I’m gonna be there because these young guys are gonna look for us. When things go wrong, they’re gonna look for the captains. They’re gonna look for the leaders.”
(Photo: Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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