As you come to grips to life without Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, consider the following statement: Before this offseason, no NFL team had lost more than five Super Bowl starters from its roster before the following season.
As the Ravens start their mandatory minicamp this afternoon, they will be without nine players that started on Feb. 3 when the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31, to win Super Bowl XLVII.
That list includes Leach (released Tuesday), wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco), center Matt Birk (retired), linebackers Ray Lewis (retired) and Dannell Ellerbe (signed with Miami), nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu (free agent), cornerback Cary Williams (signed with Philadelphia) and safeties Ed Reed (signed with Houston) and Bernard Pollard (released and signed with Tennessee). It does not include linebacker Paul Kruger, who led the Ravens in sacks last year but started only five games and then signed with Cleveland early in free agency.
Leach, 31, was arguably the best fullback in football. He made the Pro Bowl in both of his seasons in Baltimore while serving as Ray Rice’s lead blocker. Rice loved him as did the rest of the locker room. Because of his toughness and selflessness, Leach was easily one of the most popular Ravens with his teammates. We are scheduled to speak with coach John Harbaugh later today following the workout and he’ll undoubtedly be asked for the organization’s reasoning in moving on from Leach now.
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The obvious answer is ultimately, the Ravens decided that they needed the salary cap space more than Leach and it just didn’t make sense for essentially a part-time player to take up $4.33 million in cap room. Still, the pending move does spur some questions, a couple of which I’ll attempt to answer below.
Why make the move now?
The timing is a little curious. Certainly, it doesn’t look great for the Ravens to jettison a pro like Leach, who did everything the organization asked, a little more than a month before training camp. It doesn’t give Leach a whole lot of time to find a new employer with cap room and a definitive need. Obviously, the Ravens didn’t hold onto him until this late in the offseason out of spite. They wanted to keep him and thought they’d be able to work something out. If they didn’t, they would have made the move immediately after they drafted Harvard’s Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round in April. However, as they got closer to training camp, the Ravens’ top decision makers ultimately put more value on salary cap space than Leach’s skill set. It’s also important to point out that the team has had several weeks now to evaluate Juszczyk. If they didn’t think he could handle the role, they wouldn’t have made the move.
Who replaces Leach?
As I said above, Juszczyk is the logical replacement and the versatile rookie, whose best asset may be his pass-catching ability, will undoubtedly have a role on offense. However, the reality is the Ravens are expected to go more and more with the formula they used under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell during the Super Bowl run, which was more of a wide-open attack relying heavily on the right arm of quarterback Joe Flacco. Rice and Bernard Pierce will still get their carries, but the Ravens figure to use more three receiver sets and get athletic tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson even more involved.
Leach played 42 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in the regular season and just 22 offensive plays in the Super Bowl as the Ravens tilted toward the NFL trend by slowly phasing out the fullback.
How much salary cap space does the move create and what will the Ravens do with it?
Leach was due a $3 million base salary in the coming season and carried a $4.33 cap hit. When the Ravens today finalize a trade or his release, they’ll pick up an additional $3 million of cap space, giving them approximately $6.5 million of room. The Ravens have one remaining draft pick – first-rounder Matt Elam – to sign and he’ll take up about $1.2 million of room. So all told, the Ravens will have a little more than $5 million of space once the Elam deal is finalized. Perhaps, general manager Ozzie Newsome has an acquisition up his sleeve that has been kept quiet. The Ravens still could use some depth at wide receiver, linebacker and safety. But either way, organizations like to enter the season with some flexibility under the cap which the Ravens now have. Injuries happen to every team and the Ravens will need some wiggle room under the cap when needs arise.
How realistic is Leach trade and what could the Ravens expect in return? [UPDATE -- The Ravens released Leach on Tuesday morning.]
The issue here is teams around the NFL know that the Ravens have decided to move on from Leach so the Ravens don’t have a whole lot of leverage in trade talks. Teams on the fence also have the option of trying to sign Leach in free agency rather than trading anything of value to the Ravens. Still, the Ravens might be able to find a suitor willing to give him them a mid-to-late round draft pick and not wanting to deal with competition from other teams for Leach’s services once the fullback hits free agency. That would be ideal for the Ravens because not only would they get something in return, they could control where Leach winds up. The last thing they want is to see the bruiser sign with one of their chief AFC rivals. Either way, Leach, who displayed nothing but class in thanking the organization on his Twitter feed last night, will be fine. He figures to attract plenty of interest from teams not only looking for an upgrade at fullback, but a proven winner and team leader to add to their locker room.