The Ravens drafted Kyle Juszczyk out of Harvard in the 4th round of this year’s NFL Draft, and with that, it seemed the writing was on the wall for Leach as the team’s starting FB.
Its a dying breed in the NFL because it appears that other teams around the league are beginning to faze out true FB’s; straight-on blocking machines, plowing into linebackers and any other defenders in their way. The guy who sticks his neck out, gets a little dirty to give the running back all the glory, and, usually, a season in which said running back will get well over 1,000 yards on the ground.
Two factors appear to be the case in Leach’s release; a cap hit of $4.33 million dollars and a $3 million dollar base salary heading into the 2013 season and the drafting of Juszczyk, a guy who not only played FB full-throttle, but also saw time at TE and H-back at Harvard, has very good hands and the knack for scoring (22 TD’s in the Ivy League), things that scouts noted before he was drafted.
But the lingering question(s) – and it may or may not be linked together, depending on how you look at it – if the Ravens all along knew that they weren’t going to bring Leach back, further cementing that thought process by drafting Juszczyk, why not attempt to trade or cut bait earlier in the off-season? And with the Ravens transitioning their offense into one where not only is potency evident at the QB position, but also a total shift in philosophy with the running game, why the absolute need to trade Anquan Boldin?
Its not an easy decision on both ends and one I’m sure the Ravens front office debated back and forth and sat on the fence for some time.
If the Ravens had cut Leach earlier in the off-season and felt confident with Ray Rice and the emerging Bernard Pierce in the back field and like what they received from their TE’s both in blocking and catching, then perhaps there may have been more of an effort towards trying to keep Anquan Boldin in town. Its not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
Of course, with the Ravens in a cap crunch, Boldin wasn’t worth the $6 million he was owed going into 2013 after having an average season and then an outstanding postseason, but the money saved from releasing Leach could possibly have gone towards keeping Anquan in town. Surely if Leach were to be cut, they could have found a FB off the scrap heap. They chose to draft the hybrid Juszczyk.
The Ravens tried ‘aggressively’ to work out a deal with Leach but were unsuccessful in that attempt. Now fans will wonder, with a glaring hole at WR and uncertainty with how the running game will be featured, why wait so long to cut Leach now when this was ultimately going to be the team’s decision?
Leach was an outstanding performer in his two seasons in Baltimore and one of the more important free agent signings by the front office. He was also a highly respected teammate in the locker room because of his demeanor and play in general. His bruising style led the way for Rice to have seasons of 1364 and 1143 yards rushing respectively, certainly a key cog into the Ravens nearly making the Super Bowl in 2011 and winning it all in 2012.
According to Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus, with Vonta Leach on the field, Ray Rice ran 206 times for 869 yards and 10 TD in ’12. Without Leach, Rice ran for 582 yards on 135 carries and just 1 touchdown.
As of now, the fullback job is Juszczyk’s to lose. The dynamic of the offense will change and now with not only the team’s most physical WR gone, they’re without a bulldozing FB who helped Ray Rice eat up yards.
They’ll need to get creative quick and find out what pieces they have in place that can contribute over the course of a season, and which pieces could eventually be found on the waiver wire or via trade.
Despite Leach’s role in the offense, he played just 22 snaps in the Super Bowl as the Ravens throughout the playoffs opened the offense up with more three and four receiver sets and used their tight ends in different ways.
This is the evolution of the Ravens offense. One that doesn’t include an old-school FB.
While the Ravens figure out how Juszczyk fits into his role in the offense, the OTA’s loom and though nothing is set in stone, only Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones have the most history with quarterback Joe Flacco. Anquan Boldin isn’t walking back through that door. Neither is Vonta Leach.
Time for the young, hungry wide receivers to grow up very quick. Time to see what a running game will be like without an All-Pro FB and behind an offensive line who found themselves again in the playoffs.
The Ravens truly are banking on their guys to “Play Like Ravens.”
The decisions in place will be something the Ravens will have to live with. They’ll move on as they always do with the “Next Man Up” mantra, but as fans begin to wonder why the situation wasn’t reversed instead, they may be a little unnerved by the move. What we’ve seen time and time again is the front office makes moves that end up bettering the team. This move, like others, deserves a wait and see approach with how things shake out.
After all, they have shiny new bling to show off in the mean time.
Matt Lund is a contributor for BaltimoreSportsReport.com and co-host of the BSR Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @MattCLund.