A year ago at this time, running back Terrance West stood squarely on the Ravens' roster bubble, fighting to earn a spot on his hometown team and to validate himself as an NFL player after a rocky start to his career.
A year later, West will arrive at Ravens training camp as the presumptive starter after leading the team in rushing last year and easing any organizational concerns that might have followed him from his tumultuous time with the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is reluctant to anoint starters in the spring, preferring to keep competition open and players motivated through training camp. But in March Harbaugh said, "Terrance is the No. 1 guy on the depth chart, but you've got to have more than one back. Terrance has done a great job. I'm really excited. I know he's working hard, and I'm excited to see how he does."
West, 26, who already has gone from NFL starter to castoff once in his young career, said he is not taking for granted any notion the starting job has been handed to him.
"I don't feed into any of that," West said after a June OTA workout. "Anything can change any given day, any practice. Each and every day, you've just got to come out and perform. You're as [good] as your last play, so that's how I look at it."
Last training camp, West played as if he had a lot to prove, and he was as good as anyone on the 90-man roster. With hard running, decisive cuts and one strong practice after another, the 5-foot-10, 225-pound West steadily climbed his way up the Ravens' depth chart.
Not only did West make the 53-man roster, but by Week 4, he had supplanted Justin Forsett as the starting running back. West started the final 13 games and led the Ravens with 193 carries for 774 yards and five touchdowns. He also had 34 catches for 236 yards and a score.
This was the West many local fans had been hoping to see ever since the Baltimore native and Northwestern High School product declared for the NFL Draft after a record-breaking junior season at Towson University in 2013. That year, West set NCAA Football Championship Subdivision single-season records with 2,509 rushing yards and 41 rushing touchdowns, leading Towson to the national title game, where the Tigers lost to defending champion North Dakota State.
Five months later, the Cleveland Browns traded up to select West in the third round with the No. 94 overall pick. There is speculation they made the move thinking the Ravens were going to take West at No. 99.
In his NFL debut, West ran for 100 yards on 16 carries against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener.
But the rest of his rookie year did not go so smoothly.
West saw his production and workload drop off, and twice he was benched by then-Browns head coach Mike Pettine for what Pettine implied was poor preparation and practice habits.
West finished his rookie season with 171 carries for 673 yards and four touchdowns, but just before the 2015 season, West was traded to the Titans for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. It seemed an alarmingly low price for a team's leading rusher, who had been selected in the third round a year earlier, but it delivered the clear message that the Browns were moving on from West.
"Some of it was maturity issues with Terrance, just the accountability, the day-to-day practice habits and being a pro," Pettine said in November 2015. "It was unfortunate, because Terrance is a likable guy, but we just felt, at the time, that it was in both of our best interests to move on."
West's tenure in Tennessee proved to be even briefer.
He played in two games with the Titans, fumbling in both of them, and was benched. He totaled 51 yards on 16 carries, and then was inactive for five straight games before being released.
Less than two years after being drafted, West's once-promising career appeared to be in tatters.
A lifeline came from his hometown team, as the Ravens signed West to their practice squad just days after the Titans cut him. At the time, West said a couple of other teams reached out to him, "but I always wanted to be a Raven. This is my home, so I chose the Ravens."
He was elevated to the active roster Nov. 18, 2015, and the timing was fortuitous; four days later, Forsett suffered a season-ending broken arm against the St. Louis Rams. West ended up playing six games for the Ravens, rushing 46 times for 180 yards for a patchwork offense led throughout the final six weeks by three different starting quarterbacks, none of whom was named Joe Flacco. (He had suffered a season-ending ACL injury the same day Forsett broke his arm.)
Now, after taking over as the Ravens' No. 1 back last season, West enters camp as a centerpiece of a Ravens offense that, by all accounts, will be recommitted to the running game.
The Ravens ran 367 times last season, the lowest total in franchise history, and criticism of the Ravens' propensity to abandon the run reached all the way to the owner's box.
"I think that our success still goes back to good defense and balance, and that means a strong running game," owner Steve Bisciotti said at the team's "State of the Ravens" season-ending news conference in January. "I was really disappointed in the lack of a running game, the lack of a commitment to the running game."
All indications are that will change.
Harbaugh has emphasized the need for a bigger and stronger offensive line, and the Ravens added Greg Roman as a senior offensive assistant and tight ends coach. It is expected Roman will have significant influence in the Ravens' rushing offense after having much success running the ball elsewhere. As an offensive coordinator in 2015 with the Buffalo Bills and from 2011-2014 with the San Francisco 49ers, Roman oversaw a top-five rushing offense four times.
The immediate beneficiary of this newfound emphasis on the run game should be West, who said he spent the offseason training at the Under Armour complex downtown.
With second-year back Kenneth Dixon suspended for the first four games, West appears in line to be the feature back, at least for the first month of the season. The Ravens have added versatile back Danny Woodhead, although he has averaged about five carries a game during his eight-year career.
Harbaugh said there have been no issues such as those that dogged West in his first two NFL stops.
"When he came here, it was a clean slate as far as we were concerned," Harbaugh said. "We weren't concerned about what happened at the other places. It is just about how you put yourself here. He has done very well. He has worked hard. He is here on time. He takes care of his business. He gets along with everybody. He studies football really hard, so it has all been positive."
Issue 234: June 2017