Should Browns claim Shaquille Leonard after he’s waived by Colts? Here are the pros and cons

The Indianapolis Colts made a surprise move Tuesday when they waived three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard. Top-flight players rarely become available more than midway through a season, and Leonard should garner interest from a lot of teams.

Leonard, 28, was arguably one of the best linebackers during the first four years of his NFL career. He won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, made the Pro Bowl in four consecutive seasons from 2018-2021 and was an All-Pro in 2018, 2020 and 2021. Leonard tallied 343 combined tackles, 15 sacks, 30 tackles for a loss, 17 forced fumbles and 11 interceptions over that span, too.

Injuries befell Leonard this past season, though. He missed the first three weeks of the 2022 season while he recovered from offseason back surgery, then another three games with a concussion before another back injury ended his season before Week 10. Leonard saw his defensive snap share drop precipitously in 2023 under new head coach Shane Steichen, which likely played a role in his eventual release this week.

Any team that claims Leonard off the waiver wire would also acquire his contract. He owed him $6.11 million for the rest of this season. He’s also under contract through 2026 with annual salaries owed of around $16.1 million, $19 million and $19.6 million over the next three years

The Browns are in a rare position where not only could they absorb that contract this season, but they also have a need at linebacker. Starter Anthony Walker left Week 11 with a hamstring injury and is considered week-to-week. However, Cleveland sits 24th in the waiver order and may lose out to another team even if the Browns put in a claim.

Here are the pros and cons of claiming Leonard off waivers – or signing him outright if he becomes a free agent.

Pro: Immediate starter

(Jenna Watson USA Today Network via Indianapolis Star)
(Jenna Watson USA Today Network via Indianapolis Star)

Leonard is a plug-in-and-play linebacker and could instantly fill the starting middle linebacker position if Walker misses time with a hamstring injury. Coincidentally, Walker and Leonard played three seasons together with the Colts from 2018-2020.

Leonard can play the middle linebacker of WILL linebacker position and would also add depth if and when Walker returned. Leonard started 68 of 70 games in his career thus far.

Con: Big-money contract if claimed

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar-USA TODAY NETWORK
(Jenna Watson/IndyStar-USA TODAY NETWORK

Leonard signed a five-year, $98.5 million contract with $33 million guaranteed in 2021. That doesn’t go away if the Browns were to successfully claim him off of waivers. As mentioned before, any team would be on the hook for around $61.4 million from this year until his contract expired in 2026 in its current form. That’s a lot of money to give a linebacker with injury history.

The Browns are one of the only few teams who could absorb that contract, which could give them a runway to pick him up off waivers if that’s the direction they want to go. But between this deal and Deshaun Watson’s, general manager Andrew Berry may prefer to wait and try to sign him in free agency – if he gets there.

Pro: Unparalleled production potential

(Bob Scheer-USA TODAY Sports)
(Bob Scheer-USA TODAY Sports)

Leonard was one of the best linebackers during his insane four-season stretch to open his career. He had the third-most sacks, the fourth-most combined tackles, the second-most interceptions, the seventh-most tackles for a loss and fifth-most defended passes among linebackers from 2018-2020. That type of production doesn’t grow on trees.

Even though Leonard hasn’t been at his best in 2023, he’s still fourth on the team with 65 combined sacks. The addition of a healthy Leonard to this iteration of the Browns defense would be deadly.

Con: Leonard hasn't been healthy

(Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)
(Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)

Leonard played just three games this past season with various injuries. It’s concerning, too, that he wasn’t as productive even when he did play in 2022: Leonard had just 11 combined tackles and interception in three games. Leonard also already missed one game this season with a groin injury.

While Leonard’s skillset cannot be discounted, his availability and durability should be big concerns for any team who looks to acquire him.

Verdict: Pass

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar-USA TODAY NETWORK)
(Jenna Watson/IndyStar-USA TODAY NETWORK)

Leonard’s price and durability concerns should be enough dissuade the Browns from putting in claim for the veteran linebacker. Cleveland would certainly love to add a big-time player and instant starter to its already-stout defense, but Leonard’s recent history is impossible to deny.

Taking on Leonard’s contract would certainly be an all-in move for the Browns, but now is not the time for that despite their playoff push. Cleveland isn’t a lock for the postseason and Dorian Thompson-Robinson will likely start under center for the rest of the season.

The Browns should certainly take a look at Leonard if he goes unclaimed, but also aren’t a guarantee to sign him if 30 other teams also offer him a contract.

Story originally appeared on Browns Wire