The Baltimore Ravens have a number of tough decisions to make as the start of free agency and the league year looms, especially now that quarterback Joe Flacco may soon become the highest-paid player in NFL history.
Though attention has primarily been given to the pair of soon-to-be free agent linebackers, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, as well as to the futures of offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, there's another key player on Baltimore's offense who may be released: fullback Vonta Leach.
Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun said on Friday that Leach's release could be possible, especially considering the nature of his position relative to his 2013 cap hit. Leach is set to make $3 million in base salary this season and has a total cap hit, including bonuses, of $4.3 million. With the Ravens in a tough salary-cap situation, it's understandable why they wouldn't want to pay Leach that much.
Without question, Leach is the best fullback in the league. But his position is a dying breed. Not every team employs one, and among those that do, only two played 500 or more regular-season offensive snaps in 2012: Oakland's Marcel Reece and Houston's James Casey.
Leach himself came in third in total snaps with 465, but his total workload from Week 1 through the Super Bowl had him on the field for only 41 percent of the time. Vensel notes that this was less on-field playing time than backup tight end Ed Dickson (57.1 percent) and offensive guard Jah Reid (586 snaps, despite missing half of the season with injury), both of whom have made or are about to make far less money than Leach.
Dickson is a restricted free agent, which means the Ravens will either have to give him a new contract or a one-year tender to keep him in 2013. The tender seems more likely considering his low snap count and the fact that he made a mere $760,833 in 2012. Reid has a cap hit of $695,810 in 2013, less than one-quarter of what Leach is set to make this year, despite having more on-field time than him in 2012.
While much of the success of the Ravens' run game has been ascribed to Leach, who joined the team in 2011, there's not much evidence that the team's top running back, Ray Rice, couldn't have had similar production without him (or with a less expensive fullback blocking for him).
While Rice had his best season statistically in Leach's first in Baltimore in 2011, with 1,364 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, he's been successful without him too. For example, in 2009, Rice rushed for 1,339 yards and seven touchdowns, all while averaging 5.3 yards per carry—better than the 4.7 he averaged in 2011.
Further, with Rice often carrying the ball without Leach blocking for him—considering Leach's low snap count in 2012—it's quite possible Rice (as well as his backup, Bernard Pierce) could run the ball just as well without a fullback leading the way.
The issue isn't Leach's talent—there's no argument that he's the best in the league at what he does—it's about his price tag relative to his playing time. With the Ravens requiring the services of a fullback less and less while Leach's paychecks keep going up, it doesn't make financial sense to keep him around when there are serious salary-cap issues that need addressing.
Perhaps Leach would be willing to reduce his salary to remain in Baltimore to one more fitting his role; if so, then he shouldn't be subject to the round of roster cuts that are coming later this month.
But if he's not interested in doing so, or if the Ravens simply don't feel like their offense requires a fullback to work, then there's a greater chance that Leach is released than a receiver like Boldin, who is set to make $6 million in 2013 but who also has been so integral to Flacco's development over the past three seasons.
The month of March is when it becomes clear that the NFL isn't just about the sport of football—it's also a business. And the demands of that business might mean that Leach will no longer lead the way for Rice and Pierce in 2013.
It's not a pleasant conclusion to come to, but it's one that makes fiscal sense for the Ravens in a cash-strapped year. It's not a comment on Leach's talent as a fullback, but simply a reflection of the realities of a team's bottom line being cold, hard cash.