Top Free Agent Landing Spots For LB Shaq Leonard

Shaquille Leonard, once considered one of the best linebackers in the NFL, is trying to return to football. A promising career on a Hall of Fame track was derailed by a serious back injury that led to the Colts releasing him mid-season in 2023. He was picked up by the Eagles, with former Colts OC Nick Sirianni the HC in Philadelphia, finishing the season there as a rotational backup linebacker.

Shaquille Leonard

When Leonard was drafted in the second round by the Colts in 2018 out of South Carolina State, the pick was almost universally blasted by the media, quickly earning the ignominious moniker, “the worst pick of the draft.” Leonard proved the Colts correct in his rookie year, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year and being named first-team All-Pro.

Leonard would go on to make four consecutive All-Pro teams in his first four years in the league, three of those being first-team awards. He was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls and was widely considered one of the best and most impactful defensive players in the league, by players and media alike.

After the 2021 season, Leonard had back surgery to correct an issue with discs impinging his nerves. He struggled to return to the field in 2022, missing time at the beginning of the season in his recovery and eventually suffering a setback that caused him to miss the rest of the season. In 2023, he returned to the field without restrictions but was passed on the Colts depth chart and played primarily backup duties with the Eagles.

Leonard’s back injury clearly sapped much of his explosiveness. He looked a step slower in 2023, unable to play with the burst and fluid movement that made him such a weapon early in his career. He’s still a cerebral player and one of the smartest defenders in football, but his range and speed are hampered. Teams looking at signing Leonard are likely looking for a reliable, veteran backup or third linebacker who can help mentor younger players, not shoulder too heavy of a role on defense.

Leonard, 28, is a former second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft out of South Carolina State. He was entering the final year of his four-year, $7,247,808 rookie contract that included a $3,351,132 signing bonus when he signed a five-year, $99 million extension.

He was slated to make base salaries of $15.7 million and $13.6 million over the next two seasons when the Colts cut him during the 2023 season. He cleared waivers and was signed by the Eagles. 

In 2023, Leonard appeared in nine games for the Colts and five games for the Eagles. He recorded 88 total tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack.

We have him included in our Top 100 Available Free Agents list. 


Former Colts DC Matt Eberflus is the head coach in Chicago, and that connection could be enough to get a deal done. Eberflus was in Indianapolis for four seasons from 2018-2021. He was on staff when Leonard was drafted and coached the best seasons of Leonard’s career. Much of Eberflus’s defensive staff with the Colts is now part of the defensive staff for the Bears as well. Eberflus has even cited Leonard as the prototypical middle linebacker he looks for. 

Chicago signed LBs Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards to major deals in 2023. Edmunds is one of the highest-paid linebackers in the game and Edwards, while signed to a more economical deal than many expected, is still top-25 league-wide in terms of pay. Jack Sanborn is the fan-favorite third linebacker, who’s gone from undrafted free agent to productive rotational piece in the Bears defense.

On paper, the Bears are set at linebacker. But this shouldn’t necessarily preclude them from adding Leonard. Teams bring in veteran backups all the time. Leonard’s connections to the Bears’ coaching staff are strong, often an important factor in these types of additions. He could provide veteran leadership in a young locker room, mentor the younger defensive players on the roster, and provide a boost to a squad looking to take a big step forward this season.


Ernest Jones is one of the best young linebackers in the NFL. A third-round pick in 2021, Jones stepped into the starting lineup almost immediately and started producing. His counterpart, however, leaves something to be desired. Christian Rozeboom has made an impressive rise from undrafted free agent to NFL starter, but he was one of the lowest-graded starting linebackers in 2023, per PFF.

There’s room for an upgrade here, though Leonard may not provide it directly. He’s unlikely to be brought in to compete for a starting spot, though if he can somewhat return to form, he may earn it regardless. Still, this is a young pair of linebackers who could benefit from another veteran behind them. If Leonard supplants Rozeboom in the process, that would only help the Rams.

Aaron Donald’s retirement created a void of leadership at the heart of the Los Angeles defense. While they have other players certain to step up, Leonard’s passion and maturity has been lauded by both Colts and Eagles coaches. Whether he’s able to meaningfully contribute on the field this season or not, he’d be a major help to the Rams linebackers and their defense at large.


The Falcons have a young, productive linebacker duo in Troy Anderson and Kaden Elliss. A seventh-round pick in 2019, Elliss has quietly been one of the better linebackers in the NFC over the last few seasons. Anderson missed most of 2023 with an injury, though his backup Nate Landman stepped in admirably during his absence. This linebacker core is young, but they’ve been better than expected. Atlanta is not a team looking for a new starter, though the youth in their defense could certainly use a veteran presence like Leonard’s.

Elliss, Anderson, and Landman are all better run defenders than coverage linebackers. Leonard is likewise a better run defender, but some of his calling cards in his heyday were his range and coverage instincts. Injuries may have sapped some of his ability to turn and run with receivers, but he can still be an effective zone defender, and help some of the Falcons’ younger players improve in this area.

Set to adopt new HC Raheem Morris’ 3-4 scheme, the Falcons will only have two traditional linebackers on the field for most snaps. There might not be much of a path to playing time for Leonard, but it would be a good fit culturally and a chance for him to mentor younger players and pursue some playoff success.

Looking for the latest NFL Insider News & Rumors?

Be sure to follow NFL Trade Rumors on TWITTER and FACEBOOK for breaking NFL News and Rumors for all 32 teams!

Leave a Reply