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In something of a halfway house, Fitzgerald Toussaint awaits shot on Ravens practice squad

Ravens running back Fitzgerald Toussaint rushes against the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason.
Ravens running back Fitzgerald Toussaint rushes against the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason. (Al Drago / The Baltimore Sun)

Fitzgerald Toussaint sits among the team's top running backs in the Ravens' pregame meetings, alongside starter Justin Forsett in the running back room, and with rookie back Lorenzo Taliaferro in the team-wide Monday film review.

Every aspect of his life as a practice squad player is indistinguishable from that of an active-roster player, save for game days, when he watches from the sidelines in sweats. The active roster players are paid for what they do on Sundays; Toussaint and the rest of the practice squad is paid to prepare them for it, balancing his responsibility to the Ravens' defense as a scout-team player with the one he has to himself as he aspires to be an NFL running back.

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"The life of a practice squad guy is just sitting back getting mental reps," Toussaint said. "That's kind of what we do all day. The main thing we do [is] make sure we give a great look for their defense. At the same time, I've got to perfect my craft, make sure I make the proper reads while [I] give a good look for them for the running backs they're facing that week."

The Ravens' 10 practice squad players are free to sign with another team at any time, but in the meantime carry out critical responsibilities. Their grind, as the spine of the Ravens' scout teams in all three phases, is equal to that of a starter's during the week, only with none of the glory.

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Even major-college products like Toussaint, a three-year starter at Michigan who ran for 2,290 yards for the Wolverines, remain anonymous when stashed on an NFL practice squad. They're only noticed outside the team complex once they're added to the Ravens' 53-man roster or, more frequently, leave the team and find success elsewhere.

This year alone, outside linebacker John Simon (now with the Houston Texans), inside linebacker Josh Bynes (now with the Detroit Lions), and tight end Phillip Supernaw (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) have found homes on active rosters elsewhere and contribute on a weekly basis.

Twice in the last two seasons, players who have occupied Toussaint's position as the Ravens' practice squad running back achieved that. Bobby Rainey, a practice squad running back in 2012, started for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. Jonas Gray, a running back who was on the practice squad in 2013, ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns last Sunday for the Patriots.

But before they found game action, their purpose was Toussaint's current one — to emulate opposing backs for the Ravens' defense.

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Toussaint has already simulated Cincinnati Bengals star Giovani Bernard, Tennessee Titans rookie Bishop Sankey, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, and this week, former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram of the New Orleans Saints. He wears his own No. 43 to practice infrequently, and after studying the opposing backs' mannerisms and running styles, is willing to appropriate some of it into his own game.

"It's something that you look forward to, seeing how other guys run, and maybe you've got to incorporate yourself," he said. "But mainly, you've got to focus on what you do best and perfect that before you worry about what other people do."

Word has trickled back to current Ravens from former practice squad players that that task is more difficult in Baltimore than elsewhere.

"They say that out of all the places I've been, the Ravens practices have been the hardest," said running back Bernard Pierce, who stays in touch with Rainey and Gray. "We definitely get them prepared."

Others who have been in Toussaint's role indicated the practice squad is a constant motivator to stay on the coaching staff's radar and better yourself.

"It's still pressure being on practice squad, because it's still week-to-week for you, more than anyone else," said wide receiver Kamar Aiken, who spent two seasons on three different practice squads before making the Ravens' active roster this year. "You're the last man, pretty much. If they need to make a decision, you're probably going to be it. It taught me mental toughness. I felt like anything else, I could handle."

But for Toussaint, there's little insecurity or anxiety about his spot. He learned patience while red-shirting and waiting to ascend to a premier role at Michigan, and said he took news of his release at the end of the preseason and his subsequent signing to the practice squad well. He says he feels like just as big a part of the running back group as the active players, and Pierce says he's treated as an equal.

He's not focused on the future or breaking into better situations the way Gray or Rainey did, instead grateful for the opportunity to even be on the Ravens' practice squad. He makes $6,300 per week on the practice squad, but got a pair of sweeteners in Weeks 1 and 3 when he was added to the active roster and brought home a game check nearly four times that. He was only on the game day roster in Cleveland, when he played a single special teams snap.

"I'm still making more money than I ever made in my life," he said. "It's just a matter of saving it and just handling responsibility."

Still, it's something of a halfway house between life in the league and life out of it. Toussaint's spot on the practice squad appears stable given the team's running back depth and the turnover other spots have seen, and it's now on him to fulfill what he tells those who ask about his NFL status.

"I'm totally honest with them," Toussaint said. "I tell them I'm on the Ravens, but I'm on the practice squad right now. I'm not on the roster, but I'm going to get my opportunity and when my time comes, I will take advantage of it."

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