A year ago at this time, Ramses Barden was grabbing notice in his first NFL training camp, working hard to prove himself to a new coaching staff and seemingly mere weeks away from having a chance to make an immediate impact for the New York Giants on Sunday afternoons.
Fast forward 12 months and, from an outsider's point of view, the 6-foot-6 wide receiver out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo by way of Flintridge Prep remains docked in the same port.
Barden's back in Giants training camp at the University of Albany and again, by all accounts, making a strong showing for himself, still with plenty to prove and still eager to make his first meaningful contributions in a game that counts.
As few beyond the walls of Timex Performance Center, the Giants' palatial practice complex, were witness to Barden's development as a rookie, speculative words like potential, upside and ceiling are still the chief terms by which his value is defined.
But static as his situation may seem on the surface, Barden points to a different outlook going into his second pro season.
"There's plenty of things that are different," Barden says on a recent August night following his second training camp practice of the day. "Last year was more of an introduction; this year is more of a fine-tuning experience.
"Whereas I've had a year to learn and grow and watch and now I'm starting to apply some of the things I was able to observe into my own game and try and grow and earn the confidence of the coaches and our quarterbacks."
Barden appeared in just three games, sparingly, at that, and finished with one catch on the 2009 season. Never having been given the chance to really succeed or fail on the field, there would appear to be an air of curiosity even within the Giants surrounding his 2010 potential, but also a strong vote of confidence.
"Last year he didn't get a whole lot of playing time, when he did get in he made some things happen," Giants quarterback Eli Manning told reporters in comments reprinted on the team's website. "But he had a really good spring, he's a smart guy, he understands the offense and what's going on, especially for a guy who hasn't had much playing experience. So it'll be good to get him in the preseason games and other games and see how he does. But he's a big target with big hands and he's excited about what he can do and how he can help improve our offense."
Generally speaking, Barden's minimal involvement in the offense last season isn't really uncommon for a first-year wide receiver, but expectations were probably inflated somewhat by his draft position – he was taken as the 85th overall pick in April 2009 and signed a four-year, $2.48 million contract that June – and the Giants' apparent need for depth at receiver at the time.
Add to that Barden's NFL-ready build -- one that many compared to former star wideout Plaxico Burress, whom the Giants had lost to a two-year prison sentence earlier that year -- and the aptitude he showed at minicamps and training camp coming on the heels of a breakout senior year at Cal Poly and it wasn't implausible to think that Barden might see the field sooner rather than later.
But he wasn't included in the receivers rotation to begin the season, a season that the team opened on a tear with five straight wins.
And, while the Giants eventually faded, losing eight of their last 11 to finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs, it was a good year for Giants receivers, with Steve Smith putting up career numbers (107 catches for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns) and Mario Manningham (822 receiving yards) starting out hot before being supplanted by Hakeem Nicks, who tied for the lead among NFL rookies in 2009 with 790 yards receiving.
"I really don't like to make excuses for myself, saying it's a numbers game and things like that," Barden says. "I imagine that played a part in it, but at the end of the day, I control my own destiny and if I wasn't on the field, I guess I didn't do enough. The whole idea is to use that as motivation and do more.
"The main thing is gonna be taking advantage of opportunities when they come — get a play here, get a play there, make a play — those are things that build credit, so to speak, and show my value. The more I can do that, the more encouraged the coaches will be to give me more roles and more opportunities."
For Barden, the conclusion of the Giants' 2009 season was frustrating on more than one level.
Powerless to alter the Giant's monumental collapse from his position on the sideline, it was hard for him not to get restless.
"Whether you're winning or losing, you're always gonna feel like you could be out there doing something productive to help the team," Barden says.
And, while Barden will likely always remember his first catch, a 16-yard reception in the season finale at Minnesota on Jan. 3, the setting, a 44-7 blowout loss, is one no one on the team cares to recall.
"We feel like we had a very talented group last year and we came up short in several areas," Barden says. "We're looking to seize the opportunity this season and jump on our competition from the get-go and not let up. [We want] to be a dominating team, be a physical team and get back to Giant football."
While he's yet to find his niche in the offense, Barden says he fit in comfortably with the Giants during his first year as he adjusted to life as an NFL rookie.
He acclimated himself to the full-time demands of being a professional and found ways to keep active and productive for at least six days of the week.
"It's definitely an adjustment," Barden says. "The first thing you learn is how much of a business the NFL is. A lot of our time goes to meetings and watching tape and preparing for our opponents. It's nothing at all like college where you can practice for a couple hours, maybe meet with your coaches for 45 minutes and then go on about your day doing homework and socializing and all those other things.
"This is a job and a lot of times during the season it takes about 10 hours [a day] and 15 in camp, so you have to be dedicated, you really have to be focused and you have to commit your lifestyle 100% to being the best player and professional that you can be."
Barden says he was accepted right away in the locker room and says the extent of any rookie hazing he experienced was lugging around some equipment and bringing snacks to meetings -- a far cry from stories of financing bank-breaking team dinners or being humiliated in public that one occasionally hears.
"The Giants are a great organization, we have that family atmosphere and great locker room chemistry to the point where it reminded me of my time at Cal Poly," Barden says. "A lot of guys are just friends; I can hang out with anybody regardless of how much money they make or something like that.
"Rookies have to pay their dues, but it's definitely not as severe on the Giants as I've heard other teams are."
Days after the season ended, Coach Tom Coughlin remarked in comments to Yahoo! Sports that he had seen enough good things from Barden on the practice field and on the scout squad to focus on expanding his role in the offseason.
The idea has been repeated by other Giants coaches since camp started on Aug. 1, as Barden competes with last year's top producers, as well as returners Domenik Hixon and Sinorice Moss, for touches.
"He didn't have a chance to do much last year, so this year he's going to be given a chance," Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said in comments to reporters reprinted on the team's website. "Hopefully, with those opportunities, he'll take advantage of it.
"You know he's a big kid that has good ball skills, it's a big target, he's got to get open, he's got to block and take advantage of his size. If he can do those things, I think he'll contribute, but he's got to do them well enough that he can take some playing time from those other guys. And those other three guys right now are playing pretty well."
The Giants break camp on Aug. 20, but not before playing a preseason exhibition against the New York Jets next Monday, a game that begins their four-game preseason slate and that could be an early test for Barden's playing prospects before they begin to play games that count on Sept. 12 at home against Carolina.
"I definitely feel like I'm making progress," Barden says. "It's gonna take continued dedication and I'm gonna continue to show the commitment that I have to this team, my improvement and to us winning games."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun