When Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco handed the football off and threw swing passes to Ray Rice this spring, he had a close-up view of the three-time Pro Bowl running back's physical transformation.
Rice had regained much of his old quickness, displaying an ability to run away from defenders that all but disappeared during the worst season of his NFL career last year.
Rice has lost roughly 20 pounds since last season, when he weighed as much as 225 pounds while struggling with hip and quadriceps injuries that robbed him of his ability to elude pursuit or break tackles.
"He’s definitely in good shape," Flacco said of Rice at the close of the Ravens' mandatory minicamp in June. "I don’t know if he’s any quicker or anything like that; you’ll have to ask him. I can say he definitely looks good, and he’s running the ball well. Our guys are creating some room out there, even with no pads on.
"We’re creating some room out there and some holes, and sometimes that’s tough to do in these kinds of practices. But I think we’ve looked really good, and [Rice] has done a great job of pressing, cutting, getting in there and having the explosion afterward. He’s shown a lot."
As Rice awaits a potential multigame suspension under the NFL's personal-conduct policy for his role in a physical altercation with his then-fiancee in February, he's coming off an extremely rough year on and off the field.
Rice rushed for just 660 yards and averaged 3.1 yards per carry in 2013, his lowest numbers since becoming a regular starter. He averaged just 1.1 yards per carry after contact, worst in the NFL.
Now Rice has reached something of a career crossroads as he enters the third year of a five-year, $35 million contract that includes a $15 million signing bonus.
The Ravens are banking on a resurgent year from Rice while they prepare for his potential punishment. They'll count on Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Justin Forsett in his absence at the start of the regular season.
"He looks good," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Rice this spring. "It's not really total football right now, so you can't say that much. He's in shape. He's worked hard that way, and he's excited to get out there.
"The football field is a place; it's a safe haven for him right now. And he likes being out there. But he needs to do a good job, just like they all do."
In March, Rice's Timonium-based trainer, Kyle Jakobe of Sweat Performance, discussed the changes he'd seen in Rice.
"You can see the difference in his face and his body," Jakobe said. "He has cut down his weight and you can see it in how he moves. He's added lean muscle. Outside of the eyeball test, Ray has looked explosive and is cutting on a dime. We haven't seen that since the the third week of last season. Ray played last year at 10 to 16 pounds over where we like him. We usually try to send him into camp at 205 pounds, because that's where he plays his best football.
"Last year, he came back a little heavier. Ray was hurt and he played at a fraction of what he could normally play at. Ray knows he was too heavy last year and didn't feel like he was moving as well as the past. That bothered him, and he's extremely motivated and determined. He just felt like he was too heavy and not as mobile as he was before. So he's working on it hard."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun