With the start of NFL free agency 11 days away and all of the team’s unrestricted free agents remaining unsigned, the Ravens could soon make tough roster cuts to create more cap space. This is not an easy thing for the front office to do in any year, but especially so after lifting the Lombardi Trophy just a few weeks ago.
One of those salary cap casualties could be All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who is regarded by pundits and his peers as the NFL’s best at his position. For two seasons, Leach has dented facemasks while plowing open running lanes for fellow Pro Bowl back Ray Rice, but violent blockers like Leach are being phased out of the NFL. It has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with teams eschewing power runs for quick passes.
"Everyone wants to see the ball in the air, and the fullbacks don't get that many reps right now," Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, who played running back in the NFL for nine seasons, said back during training camp. "It has changed. When I was in the league, it was always about run, run, run."
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I wrote back in September about how Leach might be the last of a dying breed. Some of the former fullbacks I spoke with feel that Leach is one of the best blocking fullbacks in NFL history, but even Leach acknowledged when I interviewed him about it in August that it didn’t make sense for him to be out on the field for every play.
Leach ended up playing just 456 of the team’s offensive snaps -- 42 percent -- which were fewer than backup tight end Ed Dickson and offensive guard Jah Reid, who missed half the season with injuries. Leach, who will turn 32 in November, played just 22 offensive snaps in the Super Bowl win over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Ravens ran the ball more frequently when Jim Caldwell became offensive coordinator in December, but the offense is still trending toward a wide-open passing attack. When three wide receivers and an athletic tight end on the field, quarterback Joe Flacco thrived during the postseason. And theoretically, the passing game will continue to blossom if young receivers like Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta mature along with Flacco.
If that’s the case, it’s hard to see Leach’s role increasing in 2013, when he is scheduled to make a base salary of $3 million and carry a cap hit of $4.3 million. That is a lot of money for a fullback who played 42 percent of the snaps, even if that fullback scares the bejesus out of you when you interview him at his locker stall.
This is the hard, cold reality of the NFL, though. In order to have a chance at winning another Lombardi Trophy, the Ravens might say goodbye to some players -- and more importantly, men -- whom they are quite fond of because their on-field production does not match their cap hit. That’s why there is speculation that Leach or wide receiver Anquan Boldin or reserve guard Bobbie Williams could be released, restructured or nudged toward retirement.
Saying goodbye to Leach wouldn’t be a popular move in the locker room -- I’m sure Rice wouldn’t be happy to see his lead blocker and good friend go -- but players understand the business.
Even though fullbacks have become dispensable, Leach could find work elsewhere if he wants it. That’s because, according to former NFL fullback Heath Evans, nobody does it better than Vonta.
"He really embraces his role, which is trying to hurt linebackers,” Evans told me back in August. “And he does it quite often."