Justin Forsett long ago grew accustomed to being overshadowed, underestimated and frequently labeled as a journeyman.
So, it didn't necessarily anger the diminutive veteran running back when he joined the Ravens in April and was immediately dismissed as a place-holder while the NFL dealt with the fallout from star running back Ray Rice's domestic violence case.
It was widely assumed Forsett would be cut or relegated to the bottom of the depth chart — behind Rice, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro — when Rice returned from his initial two-game suspension
Instead, Rice was indefinitely suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in September after a graphic video surfaced of Rice knocking out his then-fiancee in a casino elevator. The Ravens also terminated Rice's $35 million contract.
With Rice dismissed, Pierce battling injuries and inconsistency and Taliaferro being a rookie, Forsett has emerged as the surprise leader of the Ravens' running game. Heading into Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons at M&T Bank Stadium, Forsett ranks fifth in the NFL with 408 rushing yards and leads the league with an average of 6.4 yards per carry.
"Yeah, it's been different than what most people expected," Forsett said. "My mindset was to come in and prepare like I was the starter, and whatever happened, happened. My mindset was I didn't know if this was going to be my last opportunity to play football. So, I was going to go all-in."
Playing for his fifth team in seven NFL seasons, Forsett has capitalized on the opportunity provided by the Ravens since he was signed to a one-year, $730,000 contract.
The only running backs to gain more yards than Forsett are the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarco Murray (785 yards), the Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell (542 yards), the Houston Texans' Arian Foster (513 yards) and the Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy (422 yards). With 64 carries, 52 fewer than McCoy, Forsett has rushed for 14 fewer yards and is averaging nearly three yards per carry more than the Eagles' star.
Among the top-five runners, Forsett is the only back to rush fewer than 116 times.
"Justin Forsett, determined," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked to describe Forsett. "He's a man of great faith. He's a very thoughtful guy, highly-motivated, tremendous character and a heck of a football player. Fortunate isn't the word I'd use, just very blessed to have him on board."
During the Ravens' 48-17 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, Forsett rushed for a season-high 111 yards on 14 carries. That included a 52-yard jaunt on the third play from scrimmage in which Forsett aggressively hit the hole created by right guard Marshal Yanda and accelerated away from pursuit to set up the Ravens' first touchdown.
"Justin is doing a really good job, we're all happy with him," Yanda said. "He's been running the ball hard. We're blocking our butts off for him.
"He definitely has a really good vision. He's hitting it north and south. You see him breaking a lot of tackles. With running backs, they at least have to make one guy miss, and it seems like he's always doing that."
Forsett contemplated giving up football following an injury-riddled season last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he was limited to six carries for 31 yards in nine games.
The Ravens signed Forsett after offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak vouched for his skills and personality. Forsett played for Kubiak with the Houston Texans two years ago, rushing for 374 yards while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He arrived with a lot of knowledge about Kubiak's trademark zone-running system.
"He's played in a few places, and sometimes guys like these, they don't get many opportunities," Kubiak said. "But when they get them, they take advantage of them. He did that with me in the past. I think the biggest compliment I can pay Justin and John [Harbaugh] after being here is knowing he was the type of guy John wanted on his team. I'm very proud of him."
Forsett is on pace to finish the season with 1,088 yards, eight touchdowns and 61 receptions for 315 yards.
"He gets the most out of his ability," Kubiak said. "He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he does a great job in pass protection. He's a three-down player, so he's a guy that you can keep on the field all the time. He's finding a way to make a big play every week."
Although Forsett is undersized at 5-feet-8, 197 pounds, he plays with a hard-nosed mentality and has regularly collided with and bounced off of much larger linebackers. Forsett has speed and elusiveness, allowing him to break several long runs.
"Justin makes his blockers look good," Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "When I look back and see him behind me, I feel good about what's going to happen."
From his vantage point as lead blocker, Juszczyk has watched Forsett run away from defenders all season. Forsett is tied with Murray for the NFL lead with six runs of 20 yards or longer. He's second behind Murray with 16 runs of 10 yards or more. With 23 catches, Forsett has the fourth-most among all running backs.
"I want to hit the hole, I like to be physical," Forsett said. "When I have to, I like to make guys miss. I think I can do it all."
Forsett grew up in Florida before moving to Arlington, Texas, as a sophomore in high school. He was nicknamed "The Truth" as he rushed for nearly 5,000 yards in his final two seasons.
He wasn't offered a scholarship by the University of Texas, and Notre Dame pulled their scholarship offer late in the recruiting process. Forsett became one of California's last signings in 2004 after then-coach Jeff Tedford got a recommendation from former Cal and NFL running back Chuck Muncie.
At Cal, Forsett primarily backed up and blocked for future Seattle Seahawks All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch. As a senior, with Lynch gone, Forsett won the starting job and rushed for 1,546 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was drafted in the seventh round in 2008 by the Seahawks, but had only one big season with them, in 2009, when he gained a career-high 619 yards and scored four touchdowns with 41 receptions for 350 yards.
"When you're 5-8, 198 pounds, it's kind of hard not to be underrated," Forsett said. "It is what it is. My job is to go out and produce."
Forsett has done that, and he's also emerged as one of the most respected players in the Ravens' locker room. Forsett has a humble, low-key personality, but is typically smiling. He's outspoken about his religious beliefs and also writes a blog about his faith.
"He's one of the best men you'll ever meet, very religious, he's a family man," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "He's honestly one of the best people that I've ever had the opportunity to be around. He's wise beyond his years.
"He's a heck of a ball player. I'm surprised that he's even here right now. I feel like he's a guy that he could be the lead guy anywhere. I'm glad he got his shot here and he's able to showcase his talent."
As the oldest running back on the team, Forsett is mentoring Pierce and Taliaferro while sharing the workload with them.
"He's definitely a great ballplayer, but he's an even greater teammate and a cool guy who tries to lead by example," Pierce said. "He's just a good dude, and a slippery back."
Forsett is working to establish himself with the Ravens. Whatever the future holds, he's thoroughly enjoying this moment.
"I'm passionate, so I just try to play every game like it's my last," Forsett said. "You've got to get downhill; you want to get north-south. That's what I've learned throughout my career. This is as much fun as I've had playing football."