Vonta Leach entered the Under Armour Performance Center on Monday, passed a physical, powered through the conditioning test and then returned to a locker room that he never wanted to leave.
It was as if he never did.
Nearly seven weeks after the Ravens released the Pro Bowl fullback after a failure to agree to a restructured contract and two days after losing tight end Dennis Pitta to a season-ending hip injury, the Ravens re-signed Leach to a two-year deal. Terms of his contract weren’t disclosed.
“Having Vonta back gives you a physical presence for sure with your offense: short yardage, goal line, also a leadership presence,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Obviously, we’ve been hopeful that this would happen all along. This is not something that we weren’t hoping for. It worked out in our favor.”
Leach, 31, wasn’t made available to reporters Monday but he said on his Twitter feed, “Raven nation I’m back.”
The Ravens are off on Tuesday, meaning that Leach’s first practice of training camp should be Wednesday. To this point, the Ravens have had only one fullback on their roster: rookie Kyle Juszczyk, a fourth-round pick out of Harvard.
Juszczyk is more of a mobile, pass-catching fullback who is still learning about being a lead blocker. Leach, meanwhile, has made the Pro Bowl three straight years — the last two with the Ravens — and is considered one of the top lead blockers in the NFL.
“It’s good to have two fullbacks. We haven’t had two fullbacks,” Harbaugh said. “We normally do in training camp and throughout the course of the preseason. It will be valuable for us. There will be plenty of reps for both of those guys. We’ll find ways to get both of those guys on the field.”
When the Ravens terminated the contract of Leach on June 11, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said that the organization would remain in contact with the fullback and could bring him back later in the offseason or during training camp. A reunion appeared unlikely when Leach took a free agent visit to the Miami Dolphins less than 48 hours after he was let go by the Ravens.
However, Leach left the Dolphins facility without being offered a contract and he received only tepid interest elsewhere. The New York Giants reportedly offered him a contract for the veteran minimum while the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs were said to have expressed some interest. But none of the teams offered Leach a multi-year deal.
The Ravens, who responded to the Pitta injury by signing veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on Sunday, were willing to make that commitment.
“Vonta being here gives us a dimension that is valuable for us,” Harbaugh said. “So when we head into the Denver game and thereafter, having him in the mix is going to be important for us.”
The Ravens didn’t necessarily want to part with Leach in the first place, but they needed the salary cap flexibility and just a couple of months earlier, they drafted a potential replacement in Juszczyk.
While they valued Leach’s lead blocking and the toughness that he brought to the offense, they felt that his role going forward didn’t justify the $3 million base salary in the final year of the three-year, $11 million contract that he signed with the Ravens before the 2011 season.
In two seasons with the Ravens for whom he played in every game, Leach had 21 total carries for 67 yards and a touchdown and 36 catches for 212 yards. However, his primary role was to clear holes for Rice who rushed for 2,507 yards and had 25 total touchdowns with Leach leading the way the past two seasons.
However, Leach found himself on the sidelines more and more last year as the Ravens, under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, went to multiple wide receiver and tight end sets. In the Ravens’ 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, Leach was on the field for just 22 offensive plays.
Still, he remained one of the offensive leaders and one of the most respected players in the locker room, largely because of his toughness and selflessness.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith and linebacker Terrell Suggs were among the players who took to their Twitter accounts to welcome Leach back to the team. After the defense dominated the offense in a goal-line drill in Saturday with Juszczyk trying to lead the way for Bernard Pierce, it was Suggs who ran to the sidelines yelling, “Where’s Vonta Leach when you need him.”
Monday, he was back in the locker room at the Under Armour Performance Center. Wednesday, he’s expected to be back on the field in his familiar No.44 jersey.
“Anybody that watches football knows what Vonta brings to the offense,” Harbaugh said. “I’m excited about it. It’s great news. We’ve been in contact and Ozzie and [Leach] have been talking all along. It worked out great for the Ravens. It’s good news.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article