INDIANAPOLIS – Maybe week 2. It won’t be the season opener.
That’s the update on Shaquille Leonard.
Despite practicing to some degree the past two weeks, the Indianapolis Colts’ All-Pro linebacker has been ruled out of Sunday’s opener at Houston.
“Ruling out Shaq Leonard,’’ Frank Reich said Friday. “He’s making good progress. We just felt after talking with Shaq and the trainers (and) doctors it’s the best thing for him and our team to hold him out this week.’’
Reich stressed Leonard didn’t suffer a setback during his rehab from back surgery in June. He’s expected to travel with the team and offer encouragement in meetings and from the sideline.
As much as the team wants Leonard back on the field, it isn’t going to rush him. Also, it’s important to take a long-term approach. It’s a 17-game season.
“No doubt,’’ Reich said. “He’s a great player. He’s a great leader for us. The other factor is as great of a player as Shaq is – there’s nobody better at his position – it’s not too crazy to say that the guys have done a good job in his absence.
“I feel confident in the guys that will be in there.’’
The top three ‘backers are Bobby Okereke, Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed.
“Obviously losing Shaq is a big loss,’’ Franklin said. “Can’t wait for him to get back.
“But we’ve got to prove ourselves out there. We want to be a dominant defense, and a defense can’t just depend on just him . . . we’ve got to carry our weight.’’
Leonard has been in rehab mode since undergoing back surgery in June. He missed all of the Colts’ offseason work and training camp. He was added to the active roster off the physically unable to perform list (PUP) Aug. 30, and began practicing.
However, no one offered a definitive timeframe for his return to the lineup, including Leonard.
“I think we’ll make a decision whenever that is right,’’ he said this week. “I don’t know when that will be. Just leave it up to the coaches and the medical.
“When they give me that OK, ready to rock and roll.’’
Perhaps that’s Sept. 18 when the Colts travel to Jacksonville. Maybe it’s the Sept. 25 home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“We could be one week away, we could be . . . I don’t know,’’ Reich said. “You guys know me, I don’t play that game, I really don’t.
“We know he’s going through a process that’s important and every rep and every day is important in that recovery process.’’
The Colts feature veteran presences at several key positions: quarterback Matt Ryan, edge pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Kenny Moore II, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, offensive linemen Ryan Kelly, Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith.
But they’ll also rely on their 10-player rookie class, including the NFL’s youngest player. That would be safety Nick Cross, who celebrates his 21st birthday Saturday, the day before the opener against the Texans in Houston.
Cross, a 3rd-round pick, will start at strong safety. Two other draft picks also are expected to offer significant contributions: wideout Alec Pierce (round 2) and tight end Jelani Woods (round 3).
Chris Ballard was bullish on Cross as the April draft unfolded; so much so he traded a 2023 3rd-round pick to Denver to acquire the Broncos’ 3rd-rounder, which was used to select the aggressive safety out of Maryland.
“I bet we caught y’all sleeping on that one, didn’t we?’’ Ballard joked after maneuvering to acquire Cross. “Just a really good athlete that can run.’’
Cross worked with the starting defense from the start of training camp, often divvying up snaps with veteran Rodney McLeod. It didn’t hurt that McLeod still was on the mend from offseason knee surgery.
But as camp unfolded, it became clear Cross had earned the starting nod.
“I can’t say there’s one moment,’’ Reich said. “I just think it’s the sum total of everything he’s been, how he acts, how he prepares. I think he just gives you that feeling of confidence in what he’s doing.’’
It’s clear Reich and Ballard aren’t averse to relying on rookies, even in a starter’s role. Since Ballard’s arrival in 2017, the Colts have had at least one rookie starter on opening day in four of five seasons. The transformational 2018 draft produced five opening-day starters, including Leonard, Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith.
Reich was asked if relying on rookies gives him pause.
“I stopped getting past that phase a long time ago,’’ he said. “We get these guys (ready), the expectations are higher, the turnover is higher.
“We don’t rush anybody, but these guys come in and you throw them right into the fire and you see who can handle it. Chris and I talk about this all the time. That’s the only way for them to really develop. So don’t be afraid even if it’s 10 plays here, 15 plays there. Get them in the action. That’s the only way you learn and get better.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.