Less than two months ago, the Baltimore Ravens released fullback Vonta Leach as a result of a contract dispute. Now, after testing the free-agent market and meeting with the Houston Texans, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins, among other teams, Leach has returned to Baltimore to again serve as the lead blocker for running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, per Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun. The deal is for two years, but the financial details have yet to be disclosed.
Leach spent the past two seasons with the Ravens after a five-year stint with the Texans, signing on in 2011 with a three-year, $11 million deal. Of that $11 million, $3 million was set to be guaranteed for 2013 (with a $4.3 million total salary cap hit)—a hefty sum for a team transitioning away from using the fullback position. The Ravens wanted to reduce that to $2 million and allow him to earn back the other $1 million in incentives.
Reportedly, the Ravens kept this offer on the table. The Giants, too, had a standing offer to Leach, but it was for the league minimum. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is less beholden to the position than his predecessor, Cam Cameron, which likely partially influenced the release in the first place.
However, Leach's importance to the Ravens cannot be understated. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Leach was the NFL's leading fullback in 2012 as well as 2011. Though his offensive snap count diminished from 665 in 2011 to 579 in 2012, he still played a major role in the 3,897 total rushing yards put up by the Ravens over the past two years.
For example, of his 579 snaps last year (including playoffs), 357 were as a run-blocker; over the same period, the Ravens ran the ball a total of 444 times. Clearly, even with a more limited usage of a fullback in Baltimore, his value to the run game is still quite high. There are few Ravens rushes that don't feature Leach blocking. Sometimes, that's because he's the one running with the ball; Leach had nine carries in 2012, reducing the number of running plays without him blocking to a mere 78.
Though Leach's return to Baltimore had been rumored practically since his release (when general manager Ozzie Newsome was quick to note that Leach could be re-signed at any time), the timing couldn't be better. The Ravens are dealing with a major injury on the offensive side of the ball—tight end Dennis Pitta's fractured and dislocated hip—that has forced them to rethink their strategy (even though it wasn't particularly fully formed prior to it).
At the very least, the loss of a major passing target like Pitta, coupled with the choice to trade wide receiver Anquan Boldin earlier this offseason, certainly makes having an effective running game an even higher priority for the Ravens this year. Though both Rice and Pierce are talented backs, having the best FB in the game leading the way only makes their jobs easier. Where there were few questions about how the Ravens running game could perform this year prior to Leach's return, now there are none.
And in an offseason that has seen so many changes to the Ravens roster, having Leach return affords the team with a little extra continuity. It also allows fourth-round draft pick Kyle Juszczyk a year to learn from the best before the Ravens have to make a decision about what to do next.
Though Leach's return might be a result of the Ravens having the best offer on the table among league suitors, the re-signing is a win for the Ravens—Leach included.