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Colts release former All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard

Shaquille Leonard's time with the Colts has ended.

The Colts released their 28-year-old All-Pro linebacker on Tuesday, incurring a potential $27.7 million dead cap hit if another team does not sign him.

"Indy, I want to thank you for accepting me and my family with open arms," Leonard posted on X. "These past 6 years has been nothing but incredible! Through the good times and bad (times) y'all stood by my side. I apologize for not bringing that trophy back to the 317. The energy in Lucas Oil has been nothing but amazing and I thank you for every memory. I'm thankful to play for such an amazing fan base. I love you guys and wish the Colts nothing but the best! Maniac out."

The decision shows a quick fall for a four-time All-Pro who just last season won the franchise's Walter Payton Man of the Year and Ed Block Courage awards.

"Colts Nation will always remember The Maniac's palpable energy on the field with each tackle, interception, punch-out and fumble recovery," Colts owner Jim Irsay said on X. "Off the field, he's a servant leader and assisted numerous families in both his hometown and the Indianapolis community. We're thankful for Shaq and the contributions he made to our organization. We wish him and his beautiful family the best moving forward."

Leonard has been vocal about his lack of playing time this season as he's worked his way back from a second surgery to correct a nerve issue in his back. The Colts have been playing him mostly on base defense while using E.J. Speed more on passing downs, when Leonard used to make his trademark splash plays.

After playing at least 93% of defensive snaps in each of his first four years, Leonard has seen that number drop to 64% this season. Colts coaches had described it as part of a plan to get him to a full year out of his second back surgery, but when that point arrived in November, Leonard did not feel his familiar role would return.

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Former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard talks to media after he was released by the team Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, before helping with a food giveaway in Indianapolis. "It was the biggest surprise ever but I don't make those decisions," Leonard said. "It was shocking."
Former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard talks to media after he was released by the team Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, before helping with a food giveaway in Indianapolis. "It was the biggest surprise ever but I don't make those decisions," Leonard said. "It was shocking."

Leonard arrived as a second-round pick out of South Carolina State in the 2018 draft. He broke on the scene immediately, leading the league with 163 tackles as a rookie, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year and being named a first-team All-Pro.

Leonard followed that up with first- or second-team All-Pro selections the next three seasons. He became known for his splash plays, and from 2018-21, he provided 15 sacks, 17 forced fumbles (tied for second most in the NFL), seven fumble recoveries (tied for third most by a defensive player) and 11 interceptions (most by a linebacker).

The Colts made Leonard the highest-paid linebacker in the game with a five-year, $98.5 million contract in the summer of 2021. Leonard rewarded them that season by having a hand in a league-high 15 turnovers, even as he played through a nagging ankle injury.

But the following offseason, doctors discovered a nerve issue in his back that was shooting pain into his ankle. He underwent surgery in June 2022 and sat out training camp, but he admittedly rushed back to practice when the regular season began. He played parts of two games before opting for a second surgery.

Leonard made it back from that surgery to practice in full form once training camp began this year, but he hasn't looked like his previous explosive self. That, combined with a fifth-year breakout from Speed, led to a reduced snap count for Leonard. He struggled to make as many splash plays in that limited time, finishing this season with two tackles for loss, zero sacks and zero turnovers.

"It's kind of hard to see those splash plays because I'm either handling the ball back to Z (Zaire Franklin) or spilling it to the safeties," Leonard said a few weeks ago. "I'm not the free guy. I don't blitz. It's kind of tough to make splash plays when you just have to do your job and then on third downs you're sitting on the sidelines being a cheerleader."

A door seemingly opened for Leonard to play more time when Franklin had to miss the Panthers game with a knee injury, opening up the team's top linebacker role. But Leonard, who plays the WILL linebacker spot, hadn't trained as a MIKE all season. And rather than move his position that week, the Colts instead started Segun Olubi and played him every snap.

The next week, Leonard had a chance at a couple of splash plays against the Patriots but missed a tackle in the backfield on Ezekiel Elliott and was not able to pounce on a fumble by Hunter Henry. Two days later, coach Shane Steichen complimented Leonard's effort but stopped short of saying he played well.

“Yeah, I thought he played hard," Steichen said. "I’ve got a ton of respect for Shaq and like I said, each week we work through that with him, that process with the playing time."

They've been working through it, but the process was not getting any easier.

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard (53) during game action at EverBank Stadium on Sunday, Oct 15, 2023, in Jacksonville.
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard (53) during game action at EverBank Stadium on Sunday, Oct 15, 2023, in Jacksonville.

For weeks, the trust between Leonard and the Colts has been slipping: He didn't trust that they would restore his playing time as they suggested, with a November deadline, and they didn't trust that he could make the splash plays they expected on third downs. A No. 3 linebacker role was never a reasonable common ground, given the gap in how each side viewed Leonard's abilities. And moving toward that role only cemented that Leonard would not finish out his remaining three contract years, making a separation a question of when, not if.

The when is here.

The Colts will pay Leonard $15.7 million in base salary this season, unless another team claims him on waivers and absorbs the remaining weeks. After this year, they will have a dead-cap hit of $8 million next year. It's likely that he will see options to sign somewhere next spring, when rosters expand and teams begin looking for competition at different positions.

The Colts will move forward with Franklin and Speed as their top two linebackers. They signed Ronnie Harrison Jr. to the active roster to take Leonard's spot, and they are moving his position from safety to linebacker.

It's also a switch they could make in some packages with second-year safety Nick Cross, who is cross-trained already as a free safety, strong safety and nickel cornerback and is listed as five pounds heavier than Harrison on the Colts' roster.

Contact Nate Atkins at natkins@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts release linebacker Shaquille Leonard in his sixth season