Ravens make right moves with tough guys

The Baltimore Ravens made the right decision to release fullback Vonta Leach and Jameel McClain on Thursday. The Ravens needed the nearly $5 million in salary cap room, and they weren't going to be relaying on either one for significant roles.

Leach and McClain weren't the most talented players on the Ravens. They weren't the biggest playmakers. But they will be missed because they were among the toughest.

Both were self-made players in this league, going from undrafted rookies into NFL starters. They were physical players who wanted to prove themselves on every play and hit.

"Both of these men helped the Ravens win a lot of games and the Super Bowl championship," coach John Harbaugh said. "We are thankful for all they gave us."

McClain, 28, beat the odds after a challenging childhood. Growing up in Philadelphia, McClain was homeless for periods of time with his family.

He eventually earned a scholarship at Syracuse and faced more obstacles in the NFL. Last season, he returned to football 10 months after suffering a spinal cord contusion.

"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, 32, is one of the last punishing fullbacks, a position that has started to become extinct in the pass-happy NFL. It took time for Leach to convince teams he could play in the league. He was released by the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints before becoming the NFL's top fullback with the Houston Texans.

After Leach joined the Ravens in 2011, it didn't take long for the player nicknamed "The Hammer" and "The Coke Machine" to make his presence known. He blew up 325-pound nose tackle Casey Hampton and pancaked Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis.

"He's the big, physical fullback you like to have when you pound the ball and are on special teams," 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."

The Ravens didn't dismiss the possibility of bringing back either Leach or McClain. But the Ravens won't need Leach if they're going away from that old-school, I-formation offense. The Ravens also won't need McClain if Daryl Smith re-signs and Arthur Brown steps up into a starting role.

It's tough to part with these players because of what they represent. But it's an easy decision based on the Ravens' plans for 2014.