INDIANAPOLIS – The credit, Shaquille Leonard says, really goes to Jeff Saturday for seeing something right away.
It was Saturday’s first practice as the interim head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
At the early November practice, Leonard was laboring.
He knew it.
And Saturday saw it.
But Leonard, ever the competitor, wanted to trudge through it, believing that back nerve issue, which had him needing surgery earlier that summer, and yet still causing pain throughout his leg, would start to subside.
Saturday had been there before and he knew immediately Leonard was just harming himself, and not helping the team.
“If it wasn’t for Jeff I probably still wouldn’t know,” Leonard recalled at the end of 2022 season of what ended up being his final practice. “For a long time, I didn’t have any answers (on his injury situation). I never had dealt with a nerve. I never had dealt with not being able to do a calf raise. I never had to talk to anyone about that. When Jeff came in, he told me he had a similar surgery with his hand. At Wednesday’s practice against the Raiders, I felt something weird. Right then he said, ‘Bro, shut it down. I want you to get it checked back out.’
“Once we saw the MRI, we knew it was time to get another surgery. I thank him because without him I would have continued to put my body on the line when I shouldn’t. Sometimes you have to protect the player from himself and I commend Jeff for that. I’m thankful that Jeff came here for that reason.”
While the physical toll on Leonard could be seen in his 74 total defensive snaps played from last season, or in the 14 games he missed, it’s also been a huge mental grind for the former All-Pro.
“At first, you have a lot of questions that a lot of people can’t answer because they haven’t been through it.” Leonard says. “When Jeff came and talked about having a similar injury it made me feel like I had someone I could talk to about it. That’s kind of how it went and I was happy to finally talk to someone who had a nerve injury and them tell me, ‘Hey, I got back. Hey, you will be back.’ That’s what I was praying to hear.”
For many reasons, the Colts could really use Leonard back to his old self.
Yes, they are paying him that type of money, through the 2026 season.
But while the Colts defense did so much of the heavy lifting last season, it still lacked the timely playmaking Leonard has made look almost routine in his history.
And, on another note, it’s possible the Colts will have a 2023 depth chart at linebacker lacking as much proven depth as in previous years.
Both Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed are free agents this offseason.
Okereke has to be heading for a nice, starting-level pay day based off what he’s done in his 4 NFL seasons.
The Colts, given what they are paying Leonard ($15.7 million and Zaire Franklin ($2.5 million), would be investing an astronomical amount at linebacker if they tried to bring Okereke back, especially as the NFL game trends more and more to 2 linebackers on the field, versus 3.
So, for several reasons, a return of a healthy Leonard is so critical to Gus Bradley’s second season at linebacker.
“I’m building that confidence back in my mind to know that I will be back to who I am,” Leonard said at the end of the 2022 season.
“I will be back to the guy on the field who punches the ball out, creates turnovers, leadership, energy, whatever. I have to make sure I remember the times when I was down, remember the people who turned their back to me, take it, put that chip back on my shoulder and continue to prove everybody wrong.”
Leonard certainly sounds like his normal self.
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