Between an interim head coach, quarterback changes and poor on-field performances, the Indianapolis Colts had a tumultuous 2022 season. Much of it was spent without one of their top leaders in linebacker Shaquille Leonard.
Leonard underwent back surgery in mid-November and has since embarked on a multiple-month recovery. His injury has improved since surgery, but he currently does not have a timetable for a return.
“I feel a whole lot better than I did at any point last year,” Leonard said during an April 19 press conference. “Still not where I want to be, but still taking it one day at a time, one step at a time, just maintaining the focus and trying to get 1% better each day.”
Leonard noted that his back injury caused nerve pain to shoot down one of his calves. That pain caused him to appear in just three games in 2022 (with one start) in which he put up 11 total tackles, an interception and a pass broken up.
He also noted that he did not give the injury enough time to heal by forcing a return prior to his surgery.
“When dealing with nerves, from what I’ve learned, is that you have to take the proper time, proper rest,” Leonard said. “I wanted to go out there and compete, but I didn’t know I was making it worse by continuing to do the things that I was doing.”
Now that Leonard has had five months to recover and rebuild strength, Colts defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said he “feels good about the direction” Leonard is headed in an April 19 presser.
Shaq Leonard Acknowledges Challenges Amid Rehab
The second-round pick out of South Carolina State said that being confined to the sidelines made 2022 “one of the hardest years” of his life.
“It was tough — mentally, it was really bad,” Leonard said. “I feel like I let the team down not benign there to help them win and felt somewhat embarrassed just coming in each day injured, not getting better.”
Although times were tough, Leonard acknowledged that retiring wasn’t an option.
“It never crossed my mind,” Leonard said.
Leonard still has progress to make in his recovery, however, as he has yet to officially be cleared to participate in live game action by doctors. That means Leonard might not be ready by Week 1 of the upcoming season.
What’s been most difficult for Leonard is not being able to participate in games, team workouts and off-season programs.
“It was hard. It’s still hard,” Leonard said.
Depth Needed Behind Shaq Leonard
Leonard unexpectedly missing games in 2022 exploited the Colts’ depth at linebacker. Fortunately for the franchise, the unit produced at a high level, as Zaire Franklin set the single-season tackles record (166) and Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed each earned new contracts.
But Okereke moved to the New York Giants, meaning the Colts will need to fill another hole this season — especially if Leonard isn’t ready to go by Week 1.
Horsehoe Huddle’s Destin Adams tweeted that because Leonard’s status is up in the air to start the season, he thinks the Colts could target more linebackers through the draft and free agency.
“The #Colts could go LB earlier in the draft than people realize,” Adams tweeted. “Zaire Franklin is likely the only starter who will be ready come week 1. EJ Speed and JoJo Domann will be ready to compete for sure but adding a draft pick and/FA should be a priority in my opinion.”
Now that Okereke has been “rewarded for his play,” Bradley and members of his defensive coaching staff are adapting to find new ways to create depth during off-season programs.
“Every linebacker will play all three linebacker positions,” Bradley said on April 19. “That way if we ever get in the season, we can constantly have the next man up regardless of position, go play and the only thing is that it just creates more depth.”