Ray Rice's absence from organized team activities has given the Ravens a chance to focus on a group of unproven players hoping to back up a player many consider the best all-around running back in the NFL.

Though Bernard Pierce's status as the team's third-round draft choice might give the former Temple star an edge over Anthony Allen, Damien Berry and fellow rookie Bobby Rainey, Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery declared the competition "wide open" last week.

That competition continues this week when the team holds its three-day mandatory veterans minicamp, which begins Tuesday in Owings Mills.

While Rice waits to sign the Ravens' $7.7-million tender offer or agrees to a new deal by July 16, Montgomery and coach John Harbaugh will be assessing the No. 2 running back position for the 2012 season.

Unless the Ravens sign a veteran to back up Rice, as they did last season with Ricky Williams, the job likely will go to one of the four running backs on the roster. Last week, Harbaugh said he is comfortable with the current group in the event the Ravens don't sign a veteran.

It would mark the first time the Ravens went with an untested No. 2 running back since Rice came in as a second-round pick in 2008. Montgomery has been impressed so far with the current group, but admitted there's a difference between OTAs and training camp.

"I like to say everyone looks good in their pajamas, everyone looks good in their underwear, but it's when you put on the pads that separate the men from the boys," Montgomery said. "They've all got good size, they've all got different traits as runners, but we won't know until they put on pads."

While Pierce might get the longest look come training camp, it doesn't mean the former Temple star, who rushed for 27 touchdowns as a senior, is the front runner. The Ravens traded a pick to move up in the order to get Pierce.

"We didn't draft him to be the successor to Ray Rice or because one of the other guys who's here, Anthony Allen or Damien Berry, can't handle this load," Montgomery said. "We're looking for more competition at that position and see if we can develop that position and develop a young guy who can help us win our division."

Those competing for the job of Rice's backup know that his absence from OTAs has given them more of an opportunity.

"The more I do, it becomes a lot faster and easier," Pierce said. "When he's not here, I don't have him to ask [questions], but when he does get here, I can actually sit down and go over film and everything that goes on his head. Since he's not here, I have to learn on my own."

For Allen, it's a chance to build on what he started last season. A seventh-round pick in 2011 out of Georgia Tech, Allen stayed on the active roster for the entire season but had only three carries for eight yards playing behind Rice and Williams.

Asked if Pierce's presence has changed his approach, Allen said, "I already had a chip on my shoulder being a seventh-round pick last year. It just picks up a little bit knowing that I can't come in here expecting anything. I've got to go all out."

Berry, a former University of Miami star who was given the same number (23) as fellow Hurricane Willis McGahee, wound up on the practice squad after being signed as a free agent. Like Allen, he sees the opportunity to play after Williams decided to retire.

That the Ravens drafted Pierce doesn't bother Berry.

"It makes me hungrier," he said. "I came from the University of Miami, where you were always competing. If you ain't competing, it meant you ain't doing something right. It was too easy. Competition makes everybody better. Forces you to be the best you can be."

It is exactly what Montgomery wants to hear. The recent workouts have been a flashback of sorts for Montgomery, recalling how Rice came in as a second-round draft pick out of Rutgers in 2008 playing behind McGahee, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season, and Le'Ron McClain, clamoring to get the ball more.

Rice didn't exactly tear it up as a rookie. He rushed for 454 yards on 107 carries but he showed an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (273 yards on 33 receptions) and be more than a willing blocker.

By his second year, he had replaced McGahee as the team's featured back.

"What I am seeing from these young guys, that's what I saw in Ray. These guys are willing to do the little things that we ask them to do," Montgomery said. "When you leave this building, don't put it down and don't close your ears and your eyes to football. That's the reason that you're here."

Though it seems easier to assess the performance of a quarterback or receiver during the less-than-intense OTAs, Montgomery knows what he, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron are looking for from this group of running backs that now includes Rainey, an undrafted free agent out who finished third in the country in rushing last season at Western Kentucky.

"They're always being evaluated on the material they've been given," Montgomery said. "We give them a lot of information, but within that information, you see how they can carry that information to the field and how they are going to respond and react to things that happen. We are looking for all the little things that most people don't see."

With or without Rice, whose agent is reportedly in contract negotiations with the Ravens, the evaluations will continue this week in Owings Mills.

"Each rep they take, they try to show that they belong. It's not about them being No. 1 or No. 2 right now; it's about being a guy given the opportunity to come back to the minicamps and then the regular-season camp," Montgomery said. "They've got to take full advantage of this to give us a chance to say we picked the right guy to compete for the No. 2 spot."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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