The excitement over landing All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach was tempered with the loss of tight end Todd Heap, who reached an agreement with the Arizona Cardinals.
One of the top offensive players in Ravens history, Heap will sign a two-year contract that totals nearly $6 million. According to a source, Heap called the Ravens before accepting the deal but the cap-strapped Ravens never made him a counteroffer.
"Excited to be an Arizona Cardinal," Heap posted on Twitter.
The Ravens released Heap, 31, on Thursday to create $4.6 million in cap room, but the team had interest in re-signing him to a less expensive contract. A first-round pick in 2001, Heap was the Ravens' most consistent receiver in an unsettled decade (he caught passes from nine starting quarterbacks).
It became tradition at M&T Bank Stadium for fans to shout "Heeeap" after every catch. His athleticism, dependable hands and toughness in leaping for passes helped him become the Ravens' all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (41).
A two-time Pro Bowl player, Heap ranks second in team history in receptions (467) and receiving yards (5,492), setting the marks that all Ravens tight ends will aspire to match. He has led Ravens tight ends in receptions for eight of the past nine seasons (he was limited to six games in 2007 because of a hamstring injury) and was tops on the team in catches for three seasons.
The Ravens will replace Heap with Ed Dickson, a 2010 third-round pick who had 11 catches for 152 yards and one touchdown last season.
"It means a lot to me that they have that much faith in me," Dickson said last week after Heap's release was announced. "All I can do is just improve myself and come out to training camp and just play my game and just try to get better every day in camp and work to get that starting position. They didn't sign anything over to me; I've still got competition, and I love competition."
The Ravens had competition in trying to sign Leach, beating out the Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and New York Giants. Leach agreed to a three-year, $11 million deal (including a $4 million bonus) that makes him the highest-paid fullback in the NFL and significantly improves the Ravens' running game.
After ranking in the top five in rushing in 2008 and 2009, the Ravens dipped to 14th last season. Their yards-per-carry average was 3.8, fifth worst in the league.
"My job is to do whatever it takes to help the team to win," Leach said. "With me and the offensive line working as one unit, I think we can get the job done."
An undrafted rookie in 2004, Leach bounced from Green Bay to New Orleans before establishing himself in Houston for the past five seasons. The 6-foot, 250-pound blocker has a track record, opening holes last season for Arian Foster, the NFL's rushing champion.
"He's a Raven-type player, very physical, dedicated to the game," general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement. "Our running game just got better."
Leach, 29, is different from Le'Ron McClain, the Ravens' fullback for the past four seasons.
McClain campaigned to run the ball after leading the team in rushing in 2008. Leach has carried the ball three times in seven seasons, none since 2008.
"Hitting is part of what I do," he said. "It's the mentality of a fullback. You're going to go in there [and] hit somebody every single time, every single play. It's going to be like a car crash."
The deal with Leach would appear to eliminate the chances of McClain's returning. The Ravens could use him to fill the big-back void left by Willis McGahee, but that would be a secondary role.
McClain didn't return phone calls Sunday.
The Ravens' focus in free agency has been to fix the running game, a message that was essentially delivered from the top. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti pointed to the running game as the biggest disappointment after the season. "If I was an objective observer, I would say the run game let us down," he said.
The Ravens' first free-agent signing was keeping guard Marshal Yanda. Leach was another priority.
"We looked at him since early this offseason, and he was definitely on our 'wish list,'" coach John Harbaugh said. "Vonta fits the style of offense we are building, and his type of physical play is an addition that fits."
Ravens running back Ray Rice welcomed the addition. Upon hearing that Leach was a Raven, Rice wrote on Twitter, "Let the fun begin."