NFL Nation: Vonta Leach

The Miami Dolphins lack a true fullback on their roster. Would Miami have any interest in former three-time Pro Bowler Vonta Leach?

Leach
There are reasons to believe the Dolphins could kick the tires on Leach for a second straight year. The Baltimore Ravens cut Leach Thursday in an effort to save salary.

Leach was in a similar situation last year when the Ravens cut him to save cap room. Leach was immediately invited to Miami to visit during the team’s minicamp. He watched practice and talked to former general manager Jeff Ireland, but Leach never signed with the Dolphins. Instead, he returned to Baltimore.

The Dolphins moved on without a fullback in 2013 in their West Coast offense. Miami tried to convert tight end Michael Egnew to fullback and had mixed results. The Dolphins were 26th in rushing and struggled to consistently gain yards on the ground. Miami also set a new franchise record with 58 quarterback sacks allowed.

Miami most likely learned its lesson that a true fullback is needed. However, Leach might be the most expensive option. The Dolphins certainly have the cap room to spend, but they might want to also explore cheaper fullback options in free agency and the draft.
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.

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.
One of the popular New York Giants storylines this offseason is the running game, with debates and questions about whether David Wilson is ready to start, how much he'll split carries with Andre Brown and how that tandem will handle itself in the crucial area of pass protection. But one of the most important pieces of the Giants' running game may not be ready to start the season, and the condition of fullback Henry Hynoski's surgically repaired left knee could have a lot to say about the success of the Wilson-Brown tandem.

Mike Mazzeo reports from Giants camp that, while Hynoski is hoping to be ready for Week 1, he's not assuming he will:
"I'm gonna do everything in my power to get back for the first game -- that's my goal, that's my intention," Hynoski said Tuesday. "But ultimately that decision is not up to me. I just want to get back to playing football at the earliest possible date. Everything's going well in my rehab, making advances and strides every day, and I'm just excited with my progress and I know the trainers are happy where I'm at too."

The Giants were concerned enough about Hynoski's health that they pursued free-agent fullback Vonta Leach earlier this month before he signed with Baltimore. And once they lost out in that pursuit, they signed Ryan D'Imperio, who's getting fullback reps in camp along with Bear Pascoe.

The run game already suffered one blow this offseason due to the free-agent departure of blocking tight end Martellus Bennett, and the sooner Hynoski gets back the better if the Giants are indeed going to find out what Wilson has to offer them in his second season in the league.
The Baltimore Ravens re-signed Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach to a two-year deal, a much-needed move for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Leach
Does this fill the void of losing tight end Dennis Pitta three days ago? No. But, given what the Ravens could do a week into training camp, this was the best move they could make.

In losing their top two receivers from a year ago -- Pitta (season-ending hip injury) and wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to the 49ers) -- the Ravens had to stabilize their running game, which meant bringing back Leach as the lead blocker for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.

Whether this signals that the Ravens will run the ball more is unknown. In two seasons with Leach, the Ravens ranked 10th and 11th in rushing. Where Leach could impact the most is in the red zone. Since they can't throw to Pitta and Boldin in the end zone, the Ravens can pound the ball inside the 20-yard line with battering-ram blocks from Leach. Still, in the big picture, it's difficult to believe the Ravens would give quarterback Joe Flacco $52 million guaranteed just to hand the ball off half the time.

The Ravens, though, couldn't go into the season with a question mark in the passing attack and running game. Rookie fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk has potential, but he didn't appear ready for the job after a week into training camp. He isn't as proven as Leach to open up holes, especially in short yardage. Even linebacker Terrell Suggs asked at one point, "Where is Vonta Leach when you need him?"

Some downplayed Leach's importance because he was on the sidelines more and more as the Ravens went with more multiple receiver formations. And the Ravens probably envisioned two tight ends as their primary alignment before Pitta went down in the first padded practice of training camp. Now the Ravens can go back to being an I-formation team with Leach at fullback and Ed Dickson as the starting tight end.

Leach's intangibles are also important. His toughness and leadership are valuable, especially in a season when the Ravens have lost so many gritty players. Leach celebrated his signing by posting a picture of his Ravens locker on Twitter.

With Leach back, the Ravens reduced the starters lost from last year's Super Bowl team to nine.

In other news, coach John Harbaugh said Pitta has no ligament damage. He's still out for the season, but it gives him a positive outlook for 2014. Pitta should be able to start rehabbing in six to eight weeks.
Leach
OK, so free-agent fullback Vonta Leach apparently has an agent, Ralph Vitolo, who just tells you everything that's going on with his negotiations with NFL teams. It's kind of jarring, honestly. We're so used to everybody treating everything as a state secret in sports these days. Here's what Vitolo had to say to FOX 26 Sports in Houston regarding his client, who's of interest to the New York Giants:
"Nobody has been excluded," Vitolo said to the Houston television station. "You have to put Miami, Houston and the Giants in the first three.

"Kansas City is also involved and Baltimore is included in this also."

...

"To me Miami is the best fit because of their needs and their availability of [salary] cap room," the agent said. "I think the best overall fit is Miami, but who knows.

"He still has an interest in Houston and the Giants, the Chiefs and the Ravens. That's all predicated on can the deals be done based on the finances they have."

Everybody got it? You guys need anything else? Want to know what the exact terms of the offers are? I mean, come on. We've got nothing to hide here.

Anyway, I don't know what to tell you with regard to the Giants, who cut their best blocking running back (Ahmad Bradshaw), lost their best blocking tight end (Martellus Bennett) to free agency and may be without their very good blocking fullback, Henry Hynoski, for a while due to a knee injury. They could surely use Leach, and I'm sure it's true that they're interested. But everything I've heard says Miami is where he's going, and jeez, his agent is saying that's where he thinks Leach belongs. It sounds as though the Giants and maybe some other teams could get competitive if they could free up the salary-cap room to compete with what the Dolphins are offering, but I don't see how the Giants do that at this point in the offseason. They may be stuck.

But the guy isn't signed anywhere else yet, so technically there's still hope. Stay tuned. Sounds as though we'll all be kept posted.
When the Baltimore Ravens officially cut Vonta Leach, general manager Ozzie Newsome said the Pro Bowl fullback could return to the team once he explores free agency. But I really didn't think this was a possibility.

Leach
Now, 13 days later, the chances of Leach coming back to the defending Super Bowl champions may be increasing. Leach has drawn interest from the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans, but neither team has apparently offered enough to get him to sign. The other team to watch is the New York Giants, who are considering increasing their offer to Leach, according to the New York Daily News.

At this point, the Ravens are "still quietly monitoring the situation" with Leach, according to the Baltimore Sun. He was released when the sides couldn't come to terms on reducing his $3 million salary this year. But the Ravens' offer -- reportedly $2 million plus incentives -- could end up being the best one on the table.

If the Ravens are unable to keep Leach, it may not hurt them as much as many think. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens averaged 4.1 yards per carry with Leach on the field last season and 4.5 yards per carry with him off the field. What can't be measured is the leadership and toughness that Leach brings.

According to ESPN's John Clayton, Leach is expected to make a decision by early this week. Don't be surprised if it's a return trip to Baltimore.
It’s no surprise the free-spending Miami Dolphins have been aggressive in their pursuit of Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach after his release from the Baltimore Ravens. The Dolphins were among the first teams to call, and they set up a visit immediately with Leach on Wednesday.

Leach
But the Dolphins aren’t the only team interested in Leach’s services. In the past 48 hours, the Houston Texans, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs reportedly have reached out to Leach's representatives. This means Miami could end up in a bidding war for Leach’s services.

Interest from multiple teams obviously favors Leach. It is doubtful Miami can get Leach on a one-year, team-friendly contract. Leach is a good player who can probably call his shot and get a sizable, multiyear offer from Miami or another team in the upcoming days or weeks. Miami must decide how much its willing to spend to land arguably the best fullback in the NFL. It is evident Miami's coaching staff hasn't been too impressed this spring with current fullbacks Jorvorskie Lane and Charles Clay.

The Dolphins have already spent more than $200 million in free-agent contracts this offseason, which includes $117 million in guaranteed money. Are they willing to outbid several other teams to land Leach?
If the Houston Texans move forward with their interest in Vonta Leach, their old fullback, it’ll send a terrible message to late-career veterans the team looks to recruit in the future.

The Texans let Leach walk for big money two years ago.

When James Casey, an H-back miscast as a fullback, bolted for Philadelphia this offseason, the Texans signed Greg Jones.

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
AP Photo/David J. PhillipIn Greg Jones, the Texans have a fullback capable of doing more than just block out of the backfield.
The former Jaguar is a quality blocker. He’s 32 and heading into his 10th season. He’s not a long-term piece, but he’s a pro who can do what the Texans need done from a lead blocker for Arian Foster and Ben Tate.

Now both Mark Berman of Fox in Houston and Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle report the Texans are interested in a return engagement for Leach.

If the Texans were to sign Leach, would they be asking him to come in and compete for the fullback job? Or would they be giving up on Jones?

If it’s the former scenario, I guess it’s fine. Though why you need a competition of that level between two very good veterans is a good question and you’re basically holding one hostage when he could be entrenching himself elsewhere now instead of when you cut him later. (It would be monstrously silly to keep both as Casey played just 53.3 percent of the Texans' offensive snaps last year.)

If it’s the latter scenario, I’ve got huge objections.

It would mean the Texans swallow $400,000 guaranteed of Jones’ one-year, $1 million contract. A team that’s tight against the cap can’t be throwing $400,000 away on a guy they don’t ever let take the field and have no complaint with. (How could they have a complaint about a fullback in June, when a fullback’s performance is based on physical play and physical play doesn’t start until late July?)

Jones would have every right to be upset and feel mistreated.

Teams make decisions all the time based on what’s available at the time, then they move on.

Fullback is not a position of need, no matter the good feelings and sentimentality they may have for Leach. He’s only six months younger than Jones.

Circumstances change, sure. But as good as Leach is, he’s not so much better than Jones that it’s something they absolutely have to do.

I asked a scout if Leach is better than Jones.

“Not better, just different,” he said. “Jones is very versatile, can run with ball, solid hands, good athlete. Leach is a blocker first, can catch but not going to be a threat.”

How much better a blocker, I asked.

“Not enough,” he said. “I would rather have the versatile player.”

If the Texans make this move, the next late-career free agent whom the Texans court will have to ask himself whether the team really wants him, or if it would jump for a slightly better alternative in a matter of months.

Giants still seek blocking help

June, 12, 2013
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There are reports of New York Giants interest in Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, who was released this week by the Super Bowl champion Ravens, and I think it's fair to assume the Giants' interest means two things:

1. Specifically, they're concerned about fullback Henry Hynoski's recovery from knee surgery possibly taking longer than they hoped.

2. Generally, they're worried about the quality of the blocking they can expect to get this year in their backfield.

The Giants cut running back Ahmad Bradshaw because of health and salary-cap reasons (he signed this week with the Colts), which was understandable and justified. But Bradshaw is the best pass-protection running back in the league, and the Giants have concerns about the ability of running backs David Wilson and Andre Brown to live up to those standards in their efforts to keep Eli Manning safe and upright.

Further, the Giants let tight end Martellus Bennett leave for a big free-agent deal with the Bears and replaced him with Brandon Myers. Myers is a fine pass-catcher but nowhere near the blocker Bennett is, and the Giants' run game should suffer for the change.

With Bradshaw, Bennett and possibly Hynoski gone from last season's Giants blocking corps, this isn't the last time you should expect to hear of the Giants expressing interest in this kind of player. Leach is going to Miami today to talk to the Dolphins, who have more cap room to sign him than the Giants do. I imagine the Giants' chances to sign him are relatively slim, but if they don't, I believe they'll keep looking.
When a big-name free agent is available this offseason, there is a good chance the Miami Dolphins have interest.

Leach
The free-spending Dolphins, who have already handed out contracts worth more than $200 million this year, will host Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach on Wednesday, according to the Baltimore Sun. Leach was released Tuesday by the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens after the sides could not agree on a restructured contract.

Miami entered free agency with plenty of room under the salary cap and has signed big-name free agents such as receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Brent Grimes, tight end Dustin Keller and linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, a former teammate of Leach. The Dolphins have been extremely aggressive in an effort to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and close the gap with the New England Patriots in the AFC East.

Leach, a three-time Pro Bowler, would definitely be an upgrade over what Miami currently has a fullback. Jorvorskie Lane is still young -- 2013 will be his second NFL season -- and has battled weight issues in the past.

The Dolphins also claimed former Chicago Bears fullback Evan Rodriguez off waivers -- a clear sign Miami is looking to improve the position.
The Baltimore Ravens officially released Vonta Leach on Tuesday, continuing a trend of getting younger and more athletic.

In the Super Bowl, the Ravens started seven players over the age of 30. There is only one (offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie) in Baltimore's projected starting lineup right now.

While the Ravens didn't rule out Leach's return, Baltimore has parted ways with eight players who were over the age of 30 from last year's championship team: linebacker Ray Lewis (37 years old) and center Matt Birk (36) retired; safety Ed Reed (34) signed elsewhere; nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu (34) hasn't been re-signed; wide receiver Anquan Boldin (32) was traded; and Leach (31), linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (36) and guard Bobbie Williams (36) were released.

The Ravens also lost the core of their physical identity without Lewis, Boldin, safety Bernard Pollard and now Leach. I'm not suggesting the Ravens will be softer, but they will be more athletic. The Ravens may replace Lewis with a sideline-to-sideline linebacker like Arthur Brown. They could go with a deep threat like Jacoby Jones or Deonte Thompson to fill Boldin's wide receiver spot. They'll have faster safeties like Matt Elam and Michael Huff to take over for Pollard. And they'll turn to a more versatile fullback in Kyle Juszczyk after releasing Leach.

So, to sum it up, there are not just new players on the Ravens. They're younger and different type players.

The Baltimore Ravens are expected to trade or release Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, according to the Baltimore Sun.

This doesn't come as much of a surprise. Actually, the only surprise is that this didn't come sooner. The Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin in March after he refused to take a pay cut from his $6 million salary, so it was only a matter of time before Baltimore to reduce the $3 million salary for a part-time player like Leach.

Leach, 31, becomes the ninth starter from the Super Bowl team not to return for the Ravens. Baltimore will have $6.6 million in salary-cap room after it creates $3 million by cutting ties with Leach.

In two seasons with Leach, the Ravens ranked 10th and 11th in rushing.

This is what Leach posted on Twitter on Monday night: "Thank @ravens organization for a great two years. I came here and did what we set out to do and that's win the Super Bowl. My time here is up but what we accomplished, we will be forever linked. Thank the fans for accepting me and my family to Bmore. #newchapter#samegoal"

Leach is the top fullback in the NFL, but it will be interesting to see what he makes as a free agent. The fullback position has been decreasing in importance as teams go to more pass-oriented attacks.

The Ravens have been among the teams getting away from the fullback. Leach played in only 42 percent of the Ravens' offensive snaps last season and had 22 snaps during the Ravens' Super Bowl victory.

Leach's departure will give rookie fourth-round pick Kyle Juszczyk an opportunity to get more playing time. But Juszczyk is more of an H-back who can be moved around and make more of an impact in the passing game. He's not a pure lead blocker like Leach.

The Ravens will miss Leach's toughness and presence in the locker room, where he was one of the more respected players.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to “Eight in the Box,” an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Who will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?

Baltimore Ravens: Fullback Vonta Leach. Some would say wide receiver Anquan Boldin, but he proved his worth in the playoffs. The better bet is Leach, who would free up $3 million in cap space. Leach is still the best at his position, but it's hard to justify paying him $3 million when he's only on the field for a quarter of the offensive plays. Center Matt Birk would also be a candidate, but he's expected to announce his retirement Friday.

Cincinnati Bengals: Cornerback Jason Allen. The Bengals have the most salary-cap space in the NFL, so they don't need to cut anyone. But the Bengals aren't going to pay unproductive players just because they have the cap room. Allen was injured for most of the season and managed to play in four games, including no starts. It doesn't seem likely that Cincinnati will pay a backup $3 million in 2013 plus a $700,000 roster bonus. Releasing Allen would create $3.7 million in cap space. Guard Travelle Wharton is another potential cut because the Bengals would gain $1.6 million in cap room.

Cleveland Browns: Quarterback Colt McCoy. Like the Bengals, the Browns have enough cap room that they don't have to cut anyone. But, just like defensive end Frostee Rucker (cut this month) didn't fit the new defense, McCoy doesn't have the strong arm needed in Norv Turner's downfield passing attack. Plus, McCoy's $2.3 million salary in 2013 makes it an easy decision to part ways.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Guard Willie Colon. The salary-cap strapped Steelers need to create a lot of space, and cutting Colon would free up $1.9 million. Pittsburgh wants to keep getting younger on the offensive line and has a couple of options for filling Colon's spot at left guard: move center Maurkice Pouncey there or start Kelvin Beachum. There's still a possibility that the Steelers will cut linebacker James Harrison. While this move would give Pittsburgh $5.1 million in cap room, I see the Steelers restructuring Harrison's contract because they're not confident in Jason Worilds stepping into a starting role.

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