Baltimore Ravens: Vonta Leach

The Baltimore Ravens made the right decision to release fullback Vonta Leach and Jameel McClain on Thursday. The Ravens needed the nearly $5 million in salary cap room, and they weren't going to be relaying on either one for significant roles.

Leach
McClain
Leach and McClain weren't the most talented players on the Ravens. They weren't the biggest playmakers. But they will be missed because they were among the toughest.

Both were self-made players in this league, going from undrafted rookies into NFL starters. They were physical players who wanted to prove themselves on every play and hit.

"Both of these men helped the Ravens win a lot of games and the Super Bowl championship," coach John Harbaugh said. "We are thankful for all they gave us."

McClain, 28, beat the odds after a challenging childhood. Growing up in Philadelphia, McClain was homeless for periods of time with his family.

He eventually earned a scholarship at Syracuse and faced more obstacles in the NFL. Last season, he returned to football 10 months after suffering a spinal cord contusion.

"There is so much to like about Jameel, the player and the person," Harbaugh said. "He's a true leader, and his story from rookie free agent to NFL starter is one of the best in the league. You give him so much credit for finding a way to become the player he is. He's one of those guys who gets the most out of his ability. He has a lot of football left, and maybe, that could be with the Ravens down the line."

Leach, 32, is one of the last punishing fullbacks, a position that has started to become extinct in the pass-happy NFL. It took time for Leach to convince teams he could play in the league. He was released by the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints before becoming the NFL's top fullback with the Houston Texans.

After Leach joined the Ravens in 2011, it didn't take long for the player nicknamed "The Hammer" and "The Coke Machine" to make his presence known. He blew up 325-pound nose tackle Casey Hampton and pancaked Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis.

"He's the big, physical fullback you like to have when you pound the ball and are on special teams," Harbaugh said. "And, who doesn't like Vonta? He's fun to be around, and his personality helped lift the energy at a lot of practices. People know we like to be physically dominating, and when we did that in recent years, Vonta was a big part of that."

The Ravens didn't dismiss the possibility of bringing back either Leach or McClain. But the Ravens won't need Leach if they're going away from that old-school, I-formation offense. The Ravens also won't need McClain if Daryl Smith re-signs and Arthur Brown steps up into a starting role.

It's tough to part with these players because of what they represent. But it's an easy decision based on the Ravens' plans for 2014.
The Baltimore Ravens plan to release fullback Vonta Leach and inside linebacker Jameel McClain, sources told The Baltimore Sun.

Both have been projected as the two most likely salary-cap casualties since the end of the season, and I wrote about these moves on the blog earlier Thursday. The Ravens will save $4.9 million off the cap by cutting Leach ($1.75 savings) and McClain ($3.2).

The team has yet to announce the moves. Leach tweeted "Thanks for the memories" on Thursday afternoon, along with photos of him with Ray Lewis and Ray Rice.

Leach, a three-time Pro Bowl fullback, re-signed at a reduced salary last year before being phased out of the offense during the season. He only participated in 20 percent of the offensive snaps in 2013 as the Ravens went to a three-receiver, spread attack.

McClain made an admirable comeback from a spinal cord contusion in 2013 after taking a $1.5 million salary cut during the summer. He finished with 50 tackles and one forced fumble in 10 starts last season, but he doesn't fit in the Ravens' plans. At inside linebacker, the Ravens are trying to re-sign Daryl Smith and they are hoping second-round pick Arthur Brown steps into a starting role this season.

The Ravens are now projected to have $27 million in cap room.

Cap increase may save Ravens punter

February, 27, 2014
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It seems like the NFL's 2014 salary cap keeps increasing with each passing day, which could turn out to be good news for Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch. According to ESPN's John Clayton, this year's cap will rise to $132 million per team. That's about $9 million more than it was in 2013 and around $6 million more than projected earlier this winter.

Koch
Koch
The increased room could save Koch, who has been considered one of the Ravens' top three candidates to get released for salary-cap reasons. Cutting Koch would free up $1.6 million in cap space.

Koch's $2.2 million salary is still high for a punter, especially one who ranked 13th in average this past season. But he's been one of the most consistent punters over the years. His career gross punting average (44.8 yards) and net punting average (38.6) both rank first in Ravens history. His 39 punts inside the 20-yard line since the 2010 season are the second most in the league.

Now, with a projected $22.1 million in cap space, the Ravens can afford to carry Koch's $2.8 million cap number, which ranks 10th on the team. His cap number also is the eighth highest among punters in 2014.

The boost in the cap may not benefit the other cap casualty candidates on the Ravens. Baltimore can gain nearly $5 million in cap room by releasing linebacker Jameel McClain and fullback Vonta Leach.

McClain is almost a certainty to get cut because the Ravens create $3.2 million in cap space. He made an admirable comeback from a spinal cord contusion, but he doesn't fit in the Ravens' plans. At inside linebacker, the Ravens are trying to re-sign Daryl Smith and they are hoping second-round pick Arthur Brown steps into a starting role this season.

Leach, who represents $1.75 million in cap savings, is expected to get released because of his reduced role on offense. There has been speculation that Leach will return because he played under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in Houston. But the Ravens need to get more playing time for fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, and they could run more formations with two tight ends than two running backs.

Last March, the Ravens only released two players: safety Bernard Pollard and guard Bobbie Williams.
For the next two weeks, let's a take a position-by-position review of the Baltimore Ravens' 2013 season and give a sneak peek of what lies ahead:

RUNNING BACKS

Rice
Rice
Under contract (2014 salary-cap number): RB Ray Rice ($8.75 million), RB Bernard Pierce ($708,986), FB Vonta Leach ($2.33M), FB Kyle Juszczyk (570,146) and RB Cierre Wood (reserve-future contract).

2014 free agents: RB Bernard Scott.

The good: Rice didn't have a terrible finish to the season, averaging a season-high 3.9 yards per carry and 7.2 yards per reception in the month of December. The high point of his season was rushing for 131 yards and a touchdown at Chicago, the NFL's worst run defense. That accounted for 20 percent of his rushing total for the season. Pierce didn't make as much of an impact as expected, but the Ravens were 6-1 when he gained at least 30 yards rushing.

The bad: Rice (3.1 yards per carry) and Pierce (2.9) ranked in the NFL's bottom four in rushing average, an indication that the bigger problem was the offensive line. Rice ran for 660 yards, the first time he didn't gain gain at least 1,100 yards since becoming the featured back in 2009. Pierce had 44 more carries than his rookie season, but finished with 96 fewer yards. Leach was phased out of the offense after the Ravens acknowledged they couldn't run the ball. He averaged 14 offensive plays per game, earning nearly $9,000 per snap.

The money: Rice is not a candidate to be a salary-cap casualty even though he has a high cap number (fifth-highest on Ravens) and had a career-worst season. His contract was front-loaded, so the Ravens wouldn't create any cap room by cutting him. The more likely cap casualty is Leach. He had almost no role in the offense after the Ravens went to a three-receiver set, and the Ravens can free up $1.75 million in cap room.

Draft priority: Moderate. Rice could be on his way out with another lackluster season in 2014, and Pierce can't stay healthy. Pierce will have rotator cuff surgery, which might keep him out until training camp. Don't look for the Ravens to use a first- or second-round pick on a running back, but no one should be surprised if the team took one after that.

Decision looming on Terrell Suggs?

December, 31, 2013
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Terrell Suggs' second-half disappearance and high salary-cap number have prompted questions about his future with the Baltimore Ravens.

Releasing Suggs would make sense financially because the Ravens would create $7.8 million in cap space. Some would argue Suggs isn't worth his $7.8 million salary in 2014 -- second only to Haloti Ngata's $8.5 million salary -- after making 20 tackles and one sack in his final eight games.

Suggs
In my opinion, Suggs remains with the Ravens. A six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, he's considered a leader in the locker room and looked like one of the league's best defensive players in the first half of the season. Suggs also showed his commitment to last year's Super Bowl team when he made a remarkable return from a torn Achilles. In the end, parting ways with Suggs would further deplete what was an underachieving pass rush.

Do I believe Suggs will be back under the same contract? That's the key question. Reworking his deal would lessen his cap hit and increase his chances of finishing his career with the Ravens.

The team has some leverage here considering Suggs is 31 and fewer teams are going to invest a lot of money in pass-rushers over the age of 30. Plus, there are legitimate concerns about Suggs' endurance (his snaps declined in the final month of the season) and lack of impact plays down the stretch. A new deal seems possible in this situation.

The Ravens are going to need to create cap room in order to sign their own free agents (like tight end Dennis Pitta and offensive tackle Eugene Monroe) as well as a few other additions (perhaps a new center or wide receiver). Baltimore is $14.5 million under the projected $126.3 million salary cap with 37 players currently under contract.

The more realistic candidates for being cap cuts are in the second tier of cap numbers: linebacker Jameel McClain, fullback Vonta Leach and punter Sam Koch. Releasing those three players would create $6.55 million in salary-cap space.

McClain made an admirable comeback from a spinal cord contusion, but the team would get $3.2 million by releasing him. It's almost certain that the Ravens will part ways with Leach ($1.75 million savings if cut), who was phased out of the offense. And the Ravens may feel a $2.2 million salary is too much for a punter like Koch (who ranked 13th in average), and they can gain $1.6 million in cap room by releasing him. Defensive end Chris Canty ($1.8 million) is another option, but the Ravens are already going to need to replace one starter (free agent Art Jones) on the defensive line.

Outside of Suggs, no one else among the top tier of salary-cap numbers are in danger of getting cut. Ngata has the largest cap number in 2014 at $16 million, but the Ravens would only save $1 million by releasing him. The same with running back Ray Rice, who has a $8.75 cap number but represents no savings if cut.
Vonta Leach went from being a Pro Bowl fullback in 2012 to a little-used blocker in 2013. He went from being re-signed by the Baltimore Ravens on July 29 to being an afterthought for most of the season.

He averaged 13.1 snaps per game this season and played four snaps in the season-ending loss at Cincinnati, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Leach is planning to talk about his future with team officials.

"I'm going to sit down with them over the next couple of days," Leach said as players cleaned out their lockers Monday. "Obviously I wasn't in the offense a whole lot this year. A lot of factors factored into that. I think I can still play in this game. I still got a lot of good tread on my tires.”

The numbers may give an indication of what the Ravens will do. Leach is scheduled to make $1.75 million in 2014, and the Ravens would free up $1.75 million in salary-cap space by releasing him.

Here's the rest of your wake-up caw ...
  • Daryl Smith, the team's leading tackler, is a free agent. His future with the Ravens is in limbo right now. “I love it here and would love to be back,” Smith said, via Comcast SportsNet. “We’ll see how it goes, though. “I think they want me back, but we’ll see."
  • Kelechi Osemele, the team's starting left guard before undergoing back surgery in November, expects to have no limitations on his training in another month. "I've been working out for a couple of weeks," Osemele said, via The Baltimore Sun. "I'm feeling pretty good about it as far as the strength in my legs is returning. The symptoms going down my leg is gone. The surgery was a success."
  • It was an obvious subdued final postgame speech of the season by coach John Harbaugh in Cincinnati. Linebacker Terrell Suggs broke the last team huddle with the word "family." Here's the video, courtesy of the team's official website.
The Baltimore Ravens continue to have a disappointing turnout in the Pro Bowl voting. Only five players rank in the top 10 in the latest ballot results, which were released by the NFL on Wednesday.

The Pro Bowl players are determined by the consensus votes of fans, players and coaches. The voting for fans ends Dec. 26.

Here are the top five vote-getters for the Ravens:

Kicker: Justin Tucker is the hottest kicker in the league, but you wouldn't be able to tell by the voting. He is No. 6 with 78,869, which is more than 114,000 votes behind first-place Stephen Gostkowski from New England.

Fullback: Vonta Leach remained at No. 3 behind Carolina's Mike Tolbert and Cleveland's Chris Ogbonnaya. Leach has 152,043 votes despite having a significantly reduced role this season.

Offensive tackle: Michael Oher is No. 7 even though he isn't the best offensive tackle on the team (that's Eugene Monroe). Oher remains popular from his "Blind Side" days.

Outside linebacker: Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens' top two sack producers, are both in the top 10. Suggs remained No. 3 behind Kansas City's Tamba Hali and Indianapolis' Robert Mathis. Dumervil is No. 7 after not being among the top vote-getters last week.

NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on Dec. 23-26. The Pro Bowl players will be announced on Dec. 27.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Where's the love for the defending Super Bowl champions? More specifically, where are the votes for them?

Only three Ravens -- outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, fullback Vonta Leach and kicker Justin Tucker -- are in the top 10 of the latest Pro Bowl voting results, which were released by the NFL on Wednesday.

The Pro Bowl players are determined by the consensus votes of fans, players and coaches. The voting for fans ends Dec. 26.

To be fair, the Ravens haven't had standout seasons from many of their players. But it's a significant snub that returner Jacoby Jones, guard Marshal Yanda and inside linebacker Daryl Smith aren't in the top 10 in voting. Also, I thought four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata would be in the top 10 based on reputation alone.

Suggs, who is second on the Ravens with nine sacks, is third among outside linebackers with 250,089 votes. He's trailing Kansas City's Tamba Hali and Indianapolis' Robert Mathis.

Leach is third among fullbacks despite having his role significantly reduced. Carolina's Mike Tolbert and Cleveland's Chris Ogbonnaya are ahead of him.

The most surprising part of the Pro Bowl balloting for the Ravens is the lack of votes for Tucker, who has made 27 straight field goals -- the longest active streak in the league. Tucker is eighth among kickers with 58,639 votes. New England's Stephen Gostkowski is first with 177,009 votes.

NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on Dec. 23-26. The Pro Bowl players will be announced on Dec. 27.
There was a lot of playoff talk in our weekly Baltimore Ravens chat. It should be a hot topic with all of the races remaining tight with seven games left. The Ravens (4-5) are 1 1/2 games behind the Cincinnati Bengals (6-4) in the AFC North, and one game behind the New York Jets (5-4) for the last playoff spot in the AFC.

If you want a full transcript of the chat, you can click here. Here are some highlights:

Rich (New Jersey): Great win for the Ravens on Sunday. But with everyone in the division within two games of each other, for the Ravens to get into the playoffs, do they need to win the division or go 5-2 over the last seven and get in as a wild card if they wind up with a 9-7 record?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I feel 10-6 still wins the division. That being said, the Ravens will have to go 5-1 leading up to the season-ending game at Cincy. If they beat the Bengals, they'll sweep and take the AFC North. As far as the wild card, I wouldn't be surprised if 9-7 gets the last playoff spot in the AFC.

James (Baltimore): The Ravens running game has struggled since Week 1, and when one breaks down the film, one sees an ineffective blocking scheme. John Harbaugh insists that changes are being made. Quite frankly, he downplays the role of the ineffective O-line play on the poor seasonal record. Is this a case of doing the same thing and expecting different result or are they doing something behind the scene to correct it?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I've seen changes as far as formations. The Ravens have tried two tight ends, I-formation with Vonta Leach, using an extra blocker with Rick Wagner as well as shotgun/pistol formations. Baltimore also has a new left side of the line since the season started with Eugene Monroe and A.Q. Shipley. I know fans are quick to criticize Castillo, but this line hasn't executed all season.

PJ (Midlo): Hi Jamison, well it was one of those drive over the cliff only to be saved by a parachute games this past Sunday - Wow! What poison does the Raven Defense takeaway from the Bears this week (Matt Forte or Brandon Marshall ?) Thanks.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Has to be Forte. The Bears are starting McKown, who is more of a game manager. He doesn't have the arm to stretch the field to Marshall, if the wind in Chicago gusts over 20 mph (which likely will be the case). The biggest thing with Marshall is getting him to the ground after he makes the catch. As far as Forte, the Ravens have to make sure they know where he's at whether it's running or passing. He has to be the priority of the Ravens' defense.

Renn (Columbia): Do you think the Ravens could still feasibly take the AFC North? The Bengals have played better than the Ravens overall but still have had their fair share of struggles.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): The Ravens have to get to 10 wins. That's how they win the North. The Bengals have lost two games but both have been on the road and in overtime. What they have to prove is their defense can withstand the loss of Geno Atkins and Leon Hall. Injuries have hurt Cincy this month.
If you want a full transcript of this week's Baltimore Ravens' chat, you can click right here. If you want some highlights, simply continue reading.

Peter (New Orleans): Now that we have a relatively healthy receiving corps, how do we get the most out of it?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I would like to see the Ravens spread out teams more with Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown, Jacoby Jones and maybe even Deonte Thompson. They're playing better than the Ravens' tight ends and fullback Vonta Leach. [John] Harbaugh has always stressed that you play your best 11 players. In my opinion, the best 11 include more receivers.

PJ (Midlo): Disappointing loss to Green Bay with all their injuries during the game. While I am a proponent of balance in the offense, does the Raven running game seem too predictable in where they run and how they run? Never any deception or unusual formations, etc. Just no imagination.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I would like to see the Ravens use more three or four wide receiver formations and take Vonta Leach off the field. I know that doesn't sound like a good solution for the running game. But the Packers spread out the Ravens and were able to get some big yards on the ground because it forces the opposition to use more nickel defense.

Emil (mobile): What are the chances the ravens fire run game coordinator Juan Castillo after this season if they keep producing this way?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Harbaugh and Juan Castillo are good friends. It's going to take one bad year for the Ravens to make a move with him. You have to wonder if there are too many opinions being expressed in the offensive game plan sessions.

Isaac (Cleveland, OH): Besides the run game, what is one thing you're keeping an eye on this Sunday for the Ravens to come out with their fourth straight win at Heinz Field?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): More turnovers from the defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Lardarius Webb gets an interception Sunday.

Matthew (London): Expecting a big game from Torrey Smith on Sunday?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I expected a big game from Torrey Smith against the Packers. So you're probably asking the wrong guy. The Ravens will take some shots deep against the Steelers, and Smith is the team's best downfield threat. It would be a mistake to ignore Smith for a second straight week.

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