But Greg Cosell, an NFL historian and analyst and senior producer at NFL Films, believes the Ravens can still utilize Leach and his diverse skill set whenever they use their sugar huddle.

By sometimes lining Leach out wide, Cosell says defenses must respond by putting a player on him. If it is a defensive back, it may create a mismatch for a wide receiver. If it is a linebacker, it likely means the defense is in man-to-man, tipping off the coverage. And to show the defense that Leach isn't just running dummy routes, they need to throw to him in the flat occasionally — even if it usually results in a minimal gain and groans from the offensive coordinators in the bleachers.

Make no mistake, though, Leach's punishing blocks are the reason the Ravens made him the NFL's highest-paid fullback last year with a three-year, $11 million contract. They are the reason why his NFL peers voted him as the 45th-best player in the league after the 2011 season. And they are the reason why Mughelli believes that Leach is one of the best fullbacks in NFL history.

"That guy hits like a Mack truck. He's fearless," said Mughelli, who will stay involved with his foundation, which teaches children in underserviced communities about the benefits of green living, until another team calls him. "He's like the Hulk. You won't like it when he's angry. I've known him for a couple of years, and I love that he plays the position like it's supposed to be played. … He's not apologizing for the violent way in which he plays the fullback position."

And as far as blocking fullbacks go, Leach is ahead of his time as much as he is a throwback.

Cosell vividly remembers a play from the Ravens' 29-14 regular-season win over the Texans last season when Leach sprang Rice for a 27-yard run that set up the game-sealing touchdown. As Leach ran ahead of Rice, he showed the agility and vision of a scatback, anticipating where Rice would cut and darting around the back of center Matt Birk to hammer linebacker DeMeco Ryans in the hole.

"He did about as good of a job as you can do as a lead blocker," Cosell said. "He couldn't just run straight up into the hole. He literally had to cut into the hole to get to the second-level linebacker. For what he does, he is as good as there is and has been for a number of years."

But is he the last of a dying breed? Will fullbacks still roam the NFL landscape a decade from now? Mughelli envisions a future world where hybrid fullbacks are like the tight ends of today. They will run like wide receivers, have the soft hands of tight ends while still blocking like Leach.

But Leach didn't want to speculate on that. His focus reaches only as far as this postseason.

"The teams that play into and late January, they have a fullback on their team," he points out.

Leach knows how valued he is in Baltimore, where there should still be plenty of smash-mouth in the playbook. He loves keeping his Ravens teammates loose, pulling pranks or squeezing into a Santa outfit during the holidays. And even if he plays only about half of the team's offensive snaps in 2012, he will still get opportunities to thump linebackers who aren't as lucky as Lewis.

"Player respect is really what you're after," said former NFL fullback Heath Evans, who is now an NFL analyst for Fox. "And I'm not sure we've seen anyone do it the way that Vonta does it. He's a guy that he doesn't really care about running the ball or catching it out of the backfield.

"He really embraces his role, which is trying to hurt linebackers. And he does it quite often."

matt.vensel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattvensel