Denver Broncos v Indianapolis Colts
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Indianapolis Colts are emerging from the bye week without one of the fixtures to their defense over the last few years. On Tuesday, Indianapolis released linebacker Shaquille Leonard. He cleared waivers on Wednesday and is now a free agent. The former All-Pro confirmed the news on social media with a post saying his farewell to the franchise and the city. 

"Indy, I want to thank you for accepting me and my family with open arms," Leonard wrote. "These past six years has been nothing but incredible! Through the good times and bad time y'all stood by my side. I apologize for not bringing that trophy back to the 317. The energy at 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!" 

Colts owner Jim Irsay also took to social media in the aftermath of the move to reminisce about Leonard's tenure, while also acknowledging that the NFL is a "tough business." 

"Colts Nation will always remember The Maniac's palpable energy on the field with each tackle, interception, punchout, and fumble recovery," Irsay said in a statement. "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 -- who requested to go by his middle name, Shaquille, over his first name, Darius, in 2022 -- arrived in Indianapolis in 2018 as a second-round draft pick out of South Carolina State. He immediately made an impact for the Colts, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year after leading the league in tackles. Over his tenure, he was a first-team All-Pro three times and named to the Pro Bowl four times. 

In recent seasons, however, injuries have plagued Leonard. He was limited to just three games in 2022 due to offseason back surgery, suffering a concussion in Week 4 of that year, and then was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season in Week 10 after suffering a setback with his back injury. Leonard has been able to suit up and start in nine games for the Colts this season and has posted 65 tackles. 

It was unlikely that a team was going to claim Leonard off waivers and absorb his current contract. If a team did, they would've owed him roughly $6 million in base salary for the rest of this season and north of $13 million per season (including $19 million in 2026) over the next three seasons. It was much more realistic for this situation to unfold where he is now free to sign a more palatable deal with a new club since he cleared waivers. 

Landing spots

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys appear to be in the market for a linebacker since Mike McCarthy's team does have a need at that position. They lost third-round rookie DeMarvion Overshown to a torn ACL in training camp, and the Cowboys were left even thinner in the aftermath of losing Leighton Vander Esch for the season due to a neck injury. Dallas now represents an opportunity for Leonard to join a Super Bowl contender where he can come in and fill a substantial role for one of the top defenses in the NFL. The opportunity to sign Leonard is something team owner and general manager Jerry Jones is contemplating.

"We'll see, we'll see," Jones said after the Cowboys rout over Washington on Thanksgiving. "I'm not trying to be coy. I really don't know right now. Contact has been made, but I'm sure every team is assuming that if they are in the hunt, they could have an interest in him. First, we have some questions we need to check on health-wise, things like that. I don't, right now, want to be on that list. I want to go do our homework and do what we should be doing and see if this thing might fit us. We've done no more than that."

Jones also declined to elaborate much on the degree of how he could help his defense if signed.

"I don't know about that," Jones said. "We had a short meeting on that before the game, and we'll see how we do with our evaluation. We'll look at him pretty good. Look at some health things. I know a lot of teams are looking at him. I don't want to give an indication of the degree of our interest with him." 

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers linebacker room has been decimated with injuries. So much so, that they needed to lure Myles Jack out of retirement to help fill the void. Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander both suffered season-ending injuries recently and were starting Mykal Walker on Sunday against the Browns after he was previously on the practice squad. Leonard could realistically come in and compete for a starting job or insert himself into the rotation with Walker, Jack, and Elandon Roberts to help stabilize this group for Pittsburgh.

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo could use depth at the linebacker spot as this defense has been hit with several key injuries this season, including Matt Milano. That's not even mentioning that the Bills also lost linebacker Tremaine Edmunds in free agency last offseason, so there is a hole here that Leonard could help fill. Tyrel Dodson and Terrel Bernard have been the starting linebackers, and Leonard could be a rotational option that the Bills could target.  

Philadelphia Eagles

If Leonard wants to be a legitimate contributor to a Super Bowl contender, the Eagles make all the sense in the world as a landing spot now that he is a free agent. Philly has been leaning on Zach Cunningham and Nicholas Morrow as its linebacker duo after sending Nakobe Dean to injured reserve with a Lisfranc injury. Leonard would be an ideal complement to Cunningham and Morrow to help bolster this position group for the postseason. It's also worth pointing out that there is familiarity here with head coach Nick Sirianni, who served as the Colts offensive coordinator from 2018-2020 and saw firsthand what Leonard is capable of when firing on all cylinders. 

Chicago Bears

If Leonard is looking for a team to latch on with to go on a deep playoff run, the Bears aren't a fit. However, there is a relationship here with Chicago with head coach Matt Eberflus. He was Leonard's defensive coordinator in Indy when he first entered the league in 2018 and during his most prolific years in the league. If Leonard is looking to rekindle that magic, then Chicago makes some sense.