Ravens inside linebacker Josh Bynes is entering his fourth season the most secure he's ever been in his standing on the team.
Coach John Harbaugh said he considers the rugged linebacker a quality NFL starter. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said he has "no qualms" playing Bynes in the middle of the team's defense.
But having ended previous training camps jobless and another bedridden with a broken back, Bynes hasn't yet shed the stigma or motivation that comes with being an undrafted player who spent years on the Ravens' roster bubble.
"Each and every year, [I'm] just showing I'm resilient," Bynes said. "I'm an undrafted guy, and hearing that you can't make this team — trust me — it's a hard role to take. … But regardless, you've just got to keep a positive mindset. I'm here. I could be home — which I'd rather not be — but that's the reason I can go with whatever they ask me to do. The best thing is, I'm here. They see something in me to keep me."
For three years, it was that black and white for Bynes. The Ravens had room for him or they didn't.
So his current misfortune — being bumped from his starting spot alongside rookie C.J. Mosley when incumbent starter Daryl Smith returned this week from a groin injury — pales in comparison to needing special teams to prove his worth.
Bynes, a three-year starter at Auburn and captain for the team that won the 2011 BCS national championship, had the pedigree to enter the NFL at a higher level than he ultimately did.
He was a highly recruited player out of Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., but even then, his coach, Mark James, said he got by more on guile than natural ability.
"Josh has always been a blue-collar player," Harris said. "He might not have been the fastest guy, but … he's a technician at what he does. That's why he was successful."
Blue-collar doesn't earn an NFL draft selection, though, and an undrafted Bynes signed with the Ravens at what he called "the bottom of the map."
"You're the last ones to come in, but you're the first ones gone," Bynes said.
He learned that when the team cut him at the end of his first training camp in 2011. Without an NFL job, Bynes spent two months trying to plan his next step. His job search led him to a position as an academic adviser at the online college Kaplan University, which he held for mere minutes that November before the Ravens called back.
"I finally found [a job], and not even 20, 30 minutes later, I got a call from [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] telling me they wanted to bring me back, that they had been wanting me here," Bynes said. He returned to the practice squad that year, and appeared in the 2011 Thanksgiving game against the San Francisco 49ers.
"We like players who can go through adversity and still come back fighting," cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "We kind of test a person's character like that. When he went home and got cut and came back fighting, he knew the hurtful feeling, so he worked his butt off."
Bynes' second season was nearly over before it began. Early in training camp, Bynes was sandwiched between a defender and running back Ray Rice on a goal line drill, and was hospitalized with fractured vertebrae in his back.
He said his injury and his release a year earlier brought on the same difficult questions.
"Essentially, it was the same, because I never knew if I could play football again," Bynes said. "That was the main thing that came to mind when I got cut: 'Am I good enough to play in the NFL? Did I do anything wrong? Am I even able to play in the NFL?' The back injury, it was pretty much the same. 'Is my career over?'"
The injury didn't require surgery, and he worked his way back onto the practice squad during the early part of the regular season. The Ravens activated Bynes in mid-October, when he took the roster spot of the injured Ray Lewis before a Week 6 loss to the Houston Texans.
He appeared in 10 games, and started the final three games of the regular season before Lewis returned. Bynes memorably made his mark on the Super Bowl XLVII victory by bringing down San Francisco kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. for the game-ending tackle.
"That was big," Webb said. "He's that type of guy. If we would guess who would be the guy to make the [last] tackle, I would say it would have been him because of how he plays on special teams and how serious he takes this game."
Bynes' role increased from that of a spot-starter and special teams player last season, when he started alongside Daryl Smith in the absence of linebacker Jameel McClain for the first six weeks. When McClain returned for Week 7, Bynes didn't gripe.
He finished the season with a career-high 43 tackles, and after years of battling for a roster spot, he's now held up as an example for players trying to do the same.
"We talked about him early on in camp [and used] him as an example to some guys — the fact that the guy comes in here as an undrafted free agent, gets a chance to play," Pees said. "When you come in this league, guys that think maybe they don't have a chance because they went undrafted, that doesn't mean anything. If you give the effort, both on and off the field — mentally — you have a chance. That's why [he's] been able to play."
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