Kamar Aiken has been in four NFL organizations in three years. He's been cut at the end of training camp and again during the regular season.
Hardened and humbled by the experiences, the well-traveled wide receiver has adopted a mindset that will serve him well over the next 21/2 weeks as he attempts to secure a roster spot with the Ravens that very few people gave him a shot to win.
"I don't try to look too far into it, as far as how I'm doing or what the competition is doing," Aiken said. "I just make sure I control what I can control."
Aiken, 25, is one of seven wide receivers bidding for one or two available roster spots, making up the Ravens' most competitive and spirited position battle in training camp. As they get ready for their second preseason game tonight against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, the Ravens are hoping that a couple of their unproven pass catchers emerge and add more clarity to roster questions that will have to be answered soon.
"Nobody has really separated themselves because nobody has fallen off right now," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They've all played well. The games are going to be a big thing now. If practice doesn't separate guys, then maybe the games will."
Harbaugh hasn't revealed how many receivers he'll keep on the 53-man roster that has to be set by Aug. 30, just more than a week before the Ravens' regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. It depends on many factors, including injuries, the makeup of special teams units and potential roster additions.
But there's little ambiguity at the top of the Ravens' wide receiver depth chart. Torrey Smith (Maryland) and Steve Smith are the starters with Jacoby Jones and Marlon Brown rounding out the top four. Michael Campanaro, the seventh-round pick who played at River Hill, is in good position to secure another spot, but coaches have worked him in slowly, hoping he'll stay healthy through training camp.
It's certainly not a given that the Ravens will take more than five wide receivers. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said this week that the team has to make a call on the "back two … or three" receiver spots.
"However it pans out, it's going to be a tough call," Kubiak said. "That's a good thing."
The Ravens' options include Deonte Thompson and LaQuan Williams, two players who earned Super Bowl rings with the team less than two years ago. Aiken and Mike Willie are trying to carve out spots on an active roster after spending extensive time on practice squads. Undrafted free agents Jeremy Butler, from Tennessee-Martin and Jace Davis, from Northern Colorado, have both shown promise as well.
"It's a healthy, great competition," Steve Smith said. "It's an opportunity that, [if] you make a statement here, even though you [might not] make [the team] — you have a coach be your mouthpiece and speak up for you [if you end up] going to another team. There's nothing better than to have a coach have a walking testimony for you if you don't make the final cuts."
Aiken was originally signed by the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent in 2011. He was released about a month later, re-signed to Buffalo's practice squad and then elevated to the active roster later in the season. He was released by the Bills two more times before ultimately signing with the Chicago Bears' practice squad in October 2012.
He was let go by the Bears about a month later and then settled on the practice squad of the New England Patriots. He was cut by the Patriots two times before he landed on the Ravens' practice squad in October.
"I've improved every day as far as taking the little things and bringing them to the field. That's the only thing I've been trying to build on," Aiken said. "I felt like since last year when I was on the practice squad [that] I opened some eyes, and they've given me every opportunity to continue to do that."
Through production alone, Campanaro and Aiken have stood out among the reserve receivers. They have consistently gotten up and had very few drops. Aiken led all receivers in the Ravens' preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers last week with four catches for 46 yards. Butler also had a noteworthy night, catching a 7-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor in the fourth quarter.
"I think if I keep up what I'm doing, I should have a good shot to be here, but you can never take anything for granted," said Butler, who had 141 catches, 1,953 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in two seasons at Tennessee-Martin. "You have to keep stacking days and working hard. I don't want to just make the team, I want to make an impact."
Thompson and Williams (Maryland) have made the team as undrafted free agents in past seasons, relying on strong preseason performances and special teams contributions. But both players have had uneven training camps this time around.
Thompson has mixed some big plays in practice with ill-timed drops. Williams, who didn't play in the NFL last season after getting cut by the Ravens in training camp, has had few opportunities, but he's confident that some will still come his way.
"You never want to get too comfortable, but I do feel comfortable as far as getting the chance to get thrown in the fire and going out there and producing," Williams said. "Experience is key. Just being out there and getting to play, that's helped me a lot. I feel like I've grown a lot as a receiver."
Kubiak said that the competition is so close that the deciding factor for the final one or two spots might be special teams. That could bode well for Thompson and Williams. It also reinforces what the coaching staff has been stressing to the younger receivers throughout training camp — that their best way to make the team is not necessarily by making a ton of catches.
"You'd have to be pretty blind to the scenario to think that you could come out here and just be a backup wide receiver and that's all you'd do," said Jerry Rosberg, the Ravens assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. "[That player] doesn't exist in the NFL."
By now, Aiken understands that. Most of his focus has been on mastering his special teams assignments. Tonight, he'll get another opportunity to show how much progress he's made.
"Basically, you prep the whole week in practice and the game is your actual test," he said. "I look forward to it but I'm the type of person where I try not to get too high or too low. I just try and stay in between and take it for what it is and don't let the game get the best of you."