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Colts players express surprise at Leonard's empty locker

Indianapolis Colts Shaquille Leonard Shaquille Leonard - The Canadian Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Zaire Franklin and Shaquille Leonard had little in common when they entered the NFL in 2018.

Leonard came with big expectations as a second-round draft pick out of South Carolina State. Franklin was viewed as a project after being a seventh-round selection out of Syracuse.

With the Indianapolis Colts, though, the two linebackers excelled together. They learned how to take care of their bodies and study video, rooted for one another and developed a tight bond on and off the field.

So when Franklin walked into Indy's locker room Wednesday and saw the empty stall next to his, the stark reality hit: Leonard was no longer his teammate.

“You know my locker was next to his for a lot of years,” Franklin said, shaking his head in disbelief a day after the Colts cut the three-time All-Pro and 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. “It just feels different without him here."

Franklin actually had a notion Monday night because Leonard said he was going to be benched after meeting with team officials. The conversation stunned Franklin and the shock continued to linger as the Colts returned to the team facility following a day off.

What Indy (5-5) lost in Leonard was the team's emotional leader on the field and in the locker room. The team captain's energy was as contagious as the playmaking skills that led him to being one of the league's most feared linebackers over his first five seasons.

But after undergoing two back surgeries for an injured nerve that caused pain through his leg, Leonard wasn't the same player. Yes, he still had 65 tackles despite reduced snaps this season. The problem: no interceptions, no forced fumbles, no fumble recoveries and no sacks.

Some thought the lack of splash plays, once Leonard's trademark, might end his six-year run in Indy during the offseason. Instead, the Colts cut Leonard less than a month after the NFL's trade deadline and a couple weeks after he complained about playing time.

"I think it's hard,” first-year coach Shane Steichen said. “There's never a right time to release a player. It was a decision that was made, a tough decision. I'm not going to get into all the details, but I do want to wish him all the best.”

Leonard put his imprint on every corner of the Colts' headquarters.

His first comments following the move came during a previously scheduled Thanksgiving giveaway event, just a few hours after the announcement. He was one of the key voices in the Colts' mental health initiative, “Kicking The Stigma.” He spoke openly about his own battle with depression, the fear of contact as he attempted to come back from injury, his personal experiences at a historically Black college and, as Franklin said, taught his teammates to see the game differently.

It wasn't just the defense that followed Leonard's lead.

“That was kind of like my first reps against an All-Pro linebacker, so that was tough,” running back Jonathan Taylor said, recalling his first encounters with Leonard as a rookie in 2020. “But it was what I needed to see. ‘This is the standard, this is what I need to be prepared for if I want to be on the field and contribute to the team.’ You’ve got to learn how to play against defenders like that.”

Taylor took those lessons and used them as he ran away with the 2021 NFL rushing title.

The connection between Leonard and Taylor didn't end there. They shared stories about their own battles with injuries and after Leonard's agent negotiated a record-setting $99.25 million contract in 2021, Taylor joined the client list and got a $42 million extension last month.

For Taylor, Franklin and the other Colts, Leonard's sudden and shocking departure was about more than business. They lost a friend.

“This will definitely hit home a little bit more just because of the person he is and the player he is and the way he always seeks to help others,” two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “Being able to just come in (to the league) and being able to play at an All-Pro level from Day 1, you don't see that a whole lot. It's skill and it's talent. Whoever gets him is going to be lucky to have him.”