BALTIMORE — Fullback Vonta Leach and weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain were two well-respected Ravens, admired by teammates for their effort on the field and their leadership in the locker room.
However, their salaries far exceeded their roles, which diminished in past seasons, prompting the Ravens to terminate the contracts of both players on Thursday in moves that give the team more salary cap flexibility before free agency officially starts on March 11.
"I understand it," Leach said. "It is what it is. It's a business. I had a good three years with the Ravens."
The release of Leach ($1.75 million) and McClain ($3.2 million) saves $4.95 million of salary cap space and puts the Ravens in better position to re-sign several of their key unrestricted free agents, a group that includes tight end Dennis Pitta, left tackle Eugene Monroe and wide receiver Jacoby Jones.
With these two moves, coupled by rush linebacker Terrell Suggs' $28.5 million contract extension earlier this month that lowered his 2014 cap number by $4.6 million, the Ravens are $19.98 million under the originally projected $126.3 salary cap. However, the cap reportedly may rise to somewhere between $130 and $132 million, meaning the Ravens could have as much as 25.6 million of cap space.
In announcing the two cuts, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome didn't rule out re-signing either Leach or McClain, calling them "our types of players."
"Vonta and Jameel are two of our most important players over the last few seasons, helping us to the playoffs and giving the Ravens the Super Bowl win after the 2012 season," Newsome said in a statement. "Vonta proved to be one of the best fullbacks in the league, plus he added leadership and toughness to our offense. Jameel is a Ravens' success story who came to us as a rookie free agent. He changed positions from playing on the defensive line and outside to becoming a good inside linebacker and starter. People close to our team understand his commitment to being the best he can be and the leadership he gave on and off the field."
Neither release was a surprise as Leach and McClain both had limited roles last season. Leach, a 32-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl selection, played in just 44 offensive snaps over the final six games, including just 12 over the final three, as the run-challenged Ravens went away from two-back sets. The Ravens also drafted fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the fourth round last year and team officials have talked about getting him more involved in new coordinator Gary Kubiak's offense.
The Ravens released Leach last June, but re-signed him to a two-year deal a little more than a month later. His presence, however, couldn't jumpstart a running game that had the fewest yards in franchise history during the 2013 season.
"He's the big, physical fullback you like to have when you pound the ball and are on special teams," head coach John 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."
McClain, 28, returned from a career-threatening spinal cord contusion, an injury that sidelined him for the Ravens' Super Bowl run, to start 10 games for the Ravens this past season. He registered 50 tackles and one forced fumble while almost exclusively being used on running downs.
Harbaugh acknowledged after the season that Arthur Brown, drafted in the second round last year, will get every opportunity to start at weak-side linebacker. However, he's not yet ruling out a return by McClain, whose recovery from the spinal cord injury led to him being the Ravens' 2013 Ed Block Courage Award recipient.
McClain didn't immediately return a phone call from The Sun. Over six seasons, he played in 87 games for the Ravens and recorded 338 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and one interception. His rise from a childhood where he was homeless at times into an NFL player had long served as a source of motivation for teammates.
"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, McClain and punter Sam Koch were viewed as the three most likely salary cap casualties. To this point, the Ravens haven't spoken to Koch, who carries a $2.8 million salary cap hit, about his contract, according to a source.
As the Ravens cleared some salary cap space, they remained in active talks with the agents of Monroe and Pitta, believed to be their two free agent priorities. While the talks are ongoing, no deals are imminent, according to sources.
Free agency is still a week and a half away, but the Ravens face a Monday deadline on placing the franchise tag on Pitta. Without the tag or a long-term deal, Pitta will be eligible for free agency.