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Why did Shaq Leonard choose the Eagles over the Cowboys?

Nick Sirianni's history with Shaq Leonard played a big part in his decision to sign with the Eagles.

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It’s hard not to notice the dropoff.

During his first four seasons, Shaq Leonard had 11 interceptions, 15 sacks, 17 forced fumbles, 32 tackles for loss.

No linebacker in the NFL was close to those numbers. No player in the NFL was close to those numbers.

In nine games his year before the Colts cut him, he had no interceptions, no sacks, no forced fumbles and two tackles for loss.

So it’s fair to wonder if he’s still the same Shaq Leonard.

“It's not just proving to Indy that I can still play, I want to prove to myself that I still can play,” Leonard said Wednesday at his new locker at the NovaCare Complex. “And that's why I continue to just grind as hard as I possibly can and come out and put my best foot forward.”

Why the decline in production?

“I had two back surgeries,” he said. ‘I think that might be the No. 1 reason. Just trying to get acclimated again to playing football.

“With back surgery, I couldn't run for five or six months. So you’ ve gotta get back to getting my feet back up under me, making the right steps. ... So it's just more so getting back to muscle memory because I couldn't do it for a while.”

The Eagles signed the three-time 1st-team all-pro to what’s essentially a six-week contract. If he can be just a fraction of the player he was in Indy from 2018 through 2021, he’ll be the Eagles’ best linebacker. At worst, he’ll provide experience and depth to a struggling position group.

Leonard signed with the Eagles this week after the Colts released him. It came down to the Eagles and Cowboys, and his first game in an Eagles jersey will be Sunday night in Dallas.

“I don't think it was just Dallas-Philly,” Leonard said. “It was more so Nick (Sirianni) and I were together when we were in Indy. Nick was a great coach, great competitor. We had a bond when we were in Indy. So we kind of just went with that. 

“It was more so just you know the environment that I would be in. It just fit my mentality and the dog mentality that he has. This defense, when they run sideline to sideline, it was kind of my scheme and taking the ball away, something that I could kind of bring."

Leonard spent 4 ½ years in Indy, and from 2018 through 2020 Sirianni was with him as Frank Reich’s offensive coordinator. Even though Sirianni and Leonard were on opposite sides of the ball, they built a terrific relationship over the years.

Everything Sirianni preaches about connecting happened with the two of them. And the Eagles have Leonard largely as a result of that connection.

“Yeah, man, it was a lot of trash talk,” he said “A lot of trash talk and I felt like we brought out the best in each other. Because I knew that Nick was going to put up a great game plan whenever it came down to competing. 

“So it made me kind of go out and be the best version of myself and try to compete because I knew that the next team meeting he was gonna say something about it – ‘The offense won’ - so we just kind of competed and I think that's one thing that I love to do is compete, and I think Nick does too, so it was it was pretty fun. I felt like every every day was a competition and just competing and just having fun, getting better.” 

What’s next?

Leonard participated in walkthrough Wednesday wearing jersey No. 50 and will be on the field Thursday most likely wearing No. 53, now that Christian Ellis is off the roster and probably headed to the practice squad.

Leonard will make his Eagles debut Sunday night in Dallas, although it remains to be seen if he starts or works in as part of a rotation.

Either way, it’s hard to imagine the Eagles’ linebacker corps won’t be better than it was before he got here.

“That's my job, is to come in wherever the coaches need me to be,” he said. “That's where I'm going to be. I think that I can help (with experience). Just what I see on the field or on the sideline, whatever the case may be, and just be the best teammate I could possibly be.”

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