Buccaneers top free agent target and former All-Pro is waiting to return to NFL

Just two months before the 2024 season, four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaq Leonard remains un-signed and projects as an excellent fit in Tampa Bay.
Buccaneers GM Jason Licht at the NFL Combine
Buccaneers GM Jason Licht at the NFL Combine / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

If there was a position group for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that oversaw the most change this offseason, it was their linebacker corps. Just this offseason, Tampa Bay lost two of its top linebackers in free agency, with Devin White and Shaq Barrett signing with the Eagles and Dolphins, respectively. Tampa Bay would manage to re-sign veteran middle linebacker Lavonte David to a one-year deal, but the losses of White and Barrett are notable.

That said, general manager Jason Licht made sure to address the position, starting with the signing of veteran outside linebacker Randy Gregory. In the 2024 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers selected Alabama pass-rushing outside linebacker Chris Braswell, and later signed undrafted free agents Kalen DeLoach, Antonio Grier, Daniel Grzesiak, and Shaun Peterson.

While the additions of Gregory and Braswell and the retention of David figure to lead another strong defense, there is still an abundance of quality free agents that the Bucs can add ahead of the season, in case of an injury or a slow start by presumed starter KJ Britt.

Buccaneers should sign free agent Shaq Leonard

One of those options is Shaq Leonard, who has been one of the NFL's premier linebackers for several years.

Leonard, the No. 36 pick in the 2018 draft, had an instant impact on the Colts' defense as a rookie. Starting in 15 games, Leonard recorded a league-leading 163 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, seven sacks, eight pass breakups, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles. With that, he was later named as the unanimous AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and was an AP first-team All-Pro selection.

For the next three seasons, Leonard would continue to ascend among the NFL's best linebackers, totaling 120+ tackles each season, 22 pass breakups, and nine interceptions while either making the AP first or second team and earning three more Pro Bowl nods.

Since then, Leonard hasn't been the same after being sidelined for 14 games in 2022 due to surgery in June of 2022 for a nerve issue in his back. Leonard would play in the Colts' first eight games this season, before being released after the trade deadline. The Eagles signed Leonard, who played in Philadelphia's final five games, posting 23 tackles and one sack.

Now, the 28-year-old Leonard remains without a team for the 2024 season, but is ready nonetheless in the chance of a team wanting his services for next season.

"I'm moreso just sitting back, getting the body healthy, and whenever the opportunity presents itself, we'll give it a try," Leonard told the Indy Star. "If it happens, it happens. If it don't, it don't. I think throughout my career I've had a great career, even if I do step away from it. ... I'm enjoying life and just waiting on that opportunity."

After all of their offseason moves, Tampa Bay is left with around $7.5 million in cap space to spend, and has more than enough to give Leonard the veteran's standard minimum. The trio of David, Britt, and Leonard would be an improvement of last season's duo of David and White, and could be a much-needed veteran presence in Tampa Bay's young locker room.

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