I'm just going to say it straight: I'm sad to see Vonta Leach go. He was an amiable, stand-up guy, always available for comment, win or lose. He was a locker room leader, setting a variety of standards of professionalism.
Most importantly, he was one of the toughest Ravens ever to suit up, which is saying something. He was the NFL's best blocking back, faithfully opening holes for Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
The Ravens have made so many moves like this that I don't think I need to explain the rationale anymore. They need salary cap room and think they can replicate a veteran's contribution with a younger guy, etc. You know the story.
The only difference with this move is the Ravens aren't exactly trying to replicate what Leach brings. His position is evolving, actually disappearing, almost like the dinosaurs centuries ago, as the NFL becomes more about passing, matchups and quickness than straight-ahead power.
Leach did nothing wrong. In fact, he did his job as well as anyone on the Ravens, as evidenced by his second straight All-NFL selection in 2012.
But the game has changed on him, rendering his style less central. And the Ravens offense has been swept up in that change, blossoming into a powerhouse under Joe Flacco during the Super Bowl run.
When the Ravens signed Leach two years ago, they were still looking to be exceptional in any way offensively, and running the ball was the one thing they did consistently well, so they doubled down with a blasting-cap of a blocking fullback. It was a great signing. Leach delivered exactly as planned. Only now the Ravens aren't as dependent on their running game, and his spot in the huddle often went to an extra receiver. Leach was only on the field for 42 percent of the Ravens' snaps in 2012, and some of their best runs during the postseason were out of a one-back set, leaving Leach vulnerable to the salary cap scythe.
His replacement, rookie Kyle Juszczyk, is a hybrid performer, a fullback expected to block but also catch passes – more than Leach, I'm guessing.
Of course, the move is also about money. The NFL's Summer Bargain Spectacular has opened, with quality players available at cut-rate prices, happy just to get picked up this close to training camp. The Ravens added a potential starting linebacker last week in Daryl Smith, reportedly signing him for $1.25 million, a lot less than what teams paid for players of similar caliber just months earlier.
It's a great time to shop for deals, and my guess is the Ravens aren't done. Having battled a tight salary cap situation all offseason, they could be even more interested than usual in bringing in useful players at the right price. With the Leach move, they're certainly still looking to clear more cap space.
Who could they add?
There have been conflicting reports about their interest in quarterback JaMarcus Russell, a former first-overall draft pick who bombed in Oakland. He's reportedly wiser now, in better shape and itching for a job as a backup.
I don't know if the Ravens really are interested, but if so, I would support bringing him in to compete with Tyrod Taylor and Caleb Hanie for the job of backing up Flacco. Russell has more experience, and his natural tools are exceptional as a former first overall pick.
They could also add a veteran wide receiver such as Brandon Lloyd, who caught more passes (74) than Anquan Boldin in 2012; or Austin Collie, who caught 172 passes for the Indianapolis Colts between 2009 and 2011 but seemingly can't find work now because of a concussion history. Collie roomed with Dennis Pitta at BYU and played under Jim Caldwell in Indy.
In any case, the Ravens want the flexibility to make moves, so Leach's time is up. The philosophy behind the decision is clear. We get it. The game marches on. But still, it's a shame to see such a solid guy and a hard-nosed player go.