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Michael Campanaro healthy, feeling at home as he rewards Ravens' patience

Michael Campanaro healthy, feeling at home as he rewards Ravens' patience
Baltimore Ravens' Michael Campanaro leaps over Chicago Bears' Cre'von LeBlanc, returning a punt for a touchdown during the fourth quarter. The Bears beat Baltimore, 27-24. (Karl Merton Ferron, The Baltimore Sun)

Ravens wide receiver and punt returner Michael Campanaro concedes that it probably would be easier elsewhere.

There wouldn't have been the added pressure from playing 25 minutes from where he grew up. He wouldn't face the scrutiny that comes with an organization whose struggles developing young wide receivers have become an obsession among its fans. Campanaro's frustrating injury history wouldn't be such a hot-button issue where he is derided on social media for missing a practice.

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Campanaro had a chance to start anew. A calf injury he sustained late in 2016 training camp resulted in the Ravens cutting him with an injury settlement. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh told Campanaro that they wanted to re-sign him when he was healthy and eligible to return, but both sides knew there were no guarantees.

Campanaro was a free agent for the first time in his young career and a number of teams, including the New England Patriots, expressed interest. Campanaro, however, declined all overtures.

"This organization – Steve Bisciotti, Ozzie, [Eric] DeCosta, Coach Harbs, Bobby Engram - they've stuck with me through injuries before and they stuck with me through some of my lowest times as a player," Campanaro said this week. "If they wanted to have me back, I wanted to be back here for the Ravens, making plays. I just wanted to be a Raven."

"I think we showed fight all the way until the end," said WR/RS Michael Campanaro when asked about how difficult it was to lose after such a big comeback. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

After three seasons of glimpses at what he could do interrupted by maddening injuries, Campanaro has found his niche this year with the Ravens, who face the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Playing mostly out of the slot, Campanaro has nine receptions for 60 yards and his role on offense could grow significantly Sunday with the Ravens dealing with myriad injuries at the wide receiver position.

Campanaro is also averaging 13.8 yards per punt return, which ranks third in the NFL. His 77-yard sprint down the near sideline for a punt return touchdown late in Sunday's eventual 27-24 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears was an apt reward for both Campanaro, who has persevered through numerous injuries, and for the Ravens, who have been patient with their 2014 seventh-round pick as he was limited to just 11 games in his first three NFL seasons.

"It's just been a lot of hard work that's gone into it," Campanaro said. "There's a ton of people here along the way – coaches, people in management, veteran players that have stayed positive with me. They know me and they know the work I put in. Just to be able to go out there and make an impact for this team and this organization, it's special."

The 26-year-old Clarksville native seemed almost uncomfortable this past week with all the attention he received from reporters after he made his most memorable play as a Raven. He caught a 19-yard touchdown reception against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his first NFL game in 2014 and had a 9-yard touchdown run against the Pittsburgh Steelers in an overtime victory during the 2015 season.

However, the punt return touchdown, coupled by a successful two-point conversion, allowed the Ravens to force overtime after they trailed Chicago by 11 points with three minutes to play.

Safety Tony Jefferson approached Campanaro and a reporter Wednesday and exclaimed, "Baltimore, stand up!" Strong-side linebacker Matthew Judon referred to Campanaro, who starred at River Hill High School in Howard County, as "Maryland's finest."

"I definitely wouldn't get as much recognition as a seventh-round pick anywhere else but in Baltimore," Campanaro acknowledged.

The selection of the local product in 2014 – the Ravens traded back into the seventh round when Campanaro was still available – was well received by hometown fans who had long yearned for a shifty and dynamic presence in the slot. Campanaro finished his career at Wake Forest ranked first in school history in receptions (229), third in receiving yards (2,506) and eighth in receiving touchdowns (14). He also threw four touchdown passes, ran for two scores and had a punt return touchdown.

But the injury bug bit him almost immediately in the NFL. He missed six games as a rookie with a hamstring injury. He played in the first four games in 2015 before landing on injured reserve because of a significant back injury. When he reaggravated a calf strain late in 2016 training camp, the Ravens put him on injured reserve and it appeared that his Ravens' career was over after just eight games.

The Ravens let him go with an injury settlement in mid-September, paving the way for him to return to the organization on the practice squad two months later. Campanaro was ultimately promoted to the 53-man roster and he played the final three games with the team, handling punt return duties and rushing three times for 72 yards.

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He signed a new one-year deal with the Ravens in early April and spent the offseason working on his body that had frequently betrayed him. He trained with his brother, Nick, who owns and operates Campanaro Strength and Conditioning in Ellicott City, and then embraced Ravens' Director of Performance Steve Saunders' intensive offseason workout program.

Campanaro was probably in the best shape of his career when organized team activities began, but a freak injury during a workout in late May threatened to make all the hard work moot.

"When it originally happened, I was close to being done for the year. It was one of those where I got lucky," Campanaro said. "I was up against the clock getting back for training camp. I couldn't have another injury in training camp or else I knew I'd probably be cut. I was just pressing in the offseason, rehabbing, working hard. Not only did I have to make sure I was healthy, but I had to make sure I was 100 percent where I could compete."

Since returning to the field early in the summer, Campanaro has been able to stay on it. Campanaro says he's "figured out" his body and he's more balanced physically, but he understands that it's too early to say that he's distanced himself from his injury-plagued past.

He's not consumed by the skepticism from some fans – "I don't read too much into Twitter bloggers who really don't have much of a life but to just troll players and talk negative. I'm just positive all the time," he says – but understands that it's out there. He's far more considered that his family and friends are exposed to the negativity.

When Campanaro's undisclosed absence for a late-August training camp practice was initially reported, some fans responded on Twitter by questioning why he was still on the team. When Campanaro was limited in practice because of a swollen ankle before the Week Two game against the Cleveland Browns, fans once again popped on message boards and social media to say that he should be released.

"He takes so much crap. Anything he does and people are like, 'Oh, he's fragile,' and this and that," teammate Mike Wallace said. "Camp is just a great guy. He works hard every day and he's getting his opportunity and taking advantage of it. I honestly believe if he's healthy, he could be one of the best slot receivers in the league just because of his skill set."

Said safety Lardarius Webb: "We've seen his talent since Day One when he stepped onto the field. He's a very dangerous athlete as a receiver and returner. We've just been waiting to see him show out because we know what he's got."

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Rather than reveling in his big punt return this past week, Campanaro spent time lamenting a key drop earlier in the game on third down. If he's even thought about vindication and about silencing some naysayers, he didn't let on.

There was a game to prepare for, after all, and after spending far more time than he would have liked on the sideline over his first three NFL seasons, that's the best feeling of all.

"The reason I've worked so hard is for the guys in the locker room, the coaches, the people who believe in me in this organization," Campanaro said. "That's really what drives me each day."

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