More than halfway through Friday's practice in Owings Mills, Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta ran down the sideline, quickly reached out ahead of a defender and snagged a bullet from quarterback Joe Flacco before tumbling to the ground.
After popping quickly to his feet, Pitta could be seen laughing and joking with some of his teammates.
For now, the improbable comeback of the 31-year-old Pitta seems plausible.
Almost three years to the day after Pitta dislocated and fractured his right hip on the first full-squad practice of training camp and was lost for most of the 2013 season, and nearly two years after he dislocated the hip again without being touched in a game against the Cleveland Browns, Pitta is trying to work his way into the rotation at one of the team's deepest positions.
"My hip feels good, two days in. I'm moving like I want to," Pitta said after practice Friday. "Just continuing to stay the course. Everything is on track so far."
Pitta acknowledged that he is surprised at how well he is moving, but discounted the notion that the turnaround has been quick.
"Last year when I was trying to come off [the physically unable to perform list], it didn't quite feel right," Pitta said. "So we knew we needed to give it more time, and rightfully so. I'm at this point and feel good and don't have any lingering issues or thoughts about it. I think we played it smart last year and did what we needed to do."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is more than encouraged by what he has seen from Pitta, both during minicamps this spring and the first two days of practice.
Asked to gauge whether Pitta is taking big or small steps toward a complete comeback, Harbaugh said, "I think big steps. If you want to look all the way back to the fact that he wasn't playing, I would say big steps. It's hard to say just apples-to-apples to three years ago, but he looks like a really good football player. The next step will be pads, and we'll see how he looks tomorrow in that."
Pitta said he doesn't think that putting on shoulder pads Saturday will be that much different.
"As you can see, it's not half-speed out here right now," Pitta said. "We're still hitting pretty good even though we don't have shoulder pads on. ... I don't anticipate tomorrow being another hurdle for me to clear. It's just another practice for me."
Agent Justin Schulman, who has represented Pitta throughout his seven-year career, said Friday that the second surgery the tight end had in 2014 was done with the idea of getting him back on the field, compared to the first surgery that was done in what was described as an "emergency" situation.
The operation by Cleveland hip specialist Roger Wilber was done "to fix not only the current problem, but fix the original problem — some of the labrum tears — and try to make it more sturdy," Schulman said. "It was more a preventative procedure."
Schulman said Pitta's mindset was always to return.
"He's a strong-willed, competitive person, I think he tackled this head on," Schulman said. "He looks at this as a challenge. A lot of soul searching. He and I had a lot of discussions about his future, both sides of it. We played the pro-and-con game a little bit. He was focused on giving it another shot and going out on his terms."
Schulman said one factor was the way Pitta feels about the way he was treated by the Ravens.
"He's appreciative the Ravens' support and he wants to prove that their investment of him wasn't for naught," Schulman said. "The organization has been phenomenal to him and he wants to repay that and continue his successful career."
Pitta might not look as fast or elusive as he did in 2012, when he was considered one of the NFL's top tight ends — catching a career-best 61 passes for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season and adding three touchdown catches during the team's Super Bowl run. But most veterans don't go full bore in July.
Still, there is a big difference in Pitta from last season's aborted comeback.
"I probably could've forced it last year, but it didn't quite feel right. Now it does. That's the difference," Pitta said. "I was running for three weeks coming off PUP. By my own standards, I felt like I looked pretty good and I was running well, but the feel and what I was experiencing post-practice wasn't exactly what I wanted."
Pitta had to take a substantial paycut to stay with the team, from a base salary of $5 million to $1 million annually. But he can make up the difference by reaching some performance bonuses, according to Schulman.
Veteran tight end Benjamin Watson, who signed as a free agent with the possibility of being the No. 1 tight end, said Thursday what he has seen of Pitta during the spring and now is not much different from what he had witnessed before when playing against or scouting the Ravens.
"I've come back from injuries, too, so I know how tough it is — not two years in a row," Watson said. "He looks good, man. I don't know how he feels. If he's feeling anything, he's fooling all of us because he's running around great, making plays. He looks like the guy I remember watching a couple of years ago."
Pitta is aware that he will have to prove he is worthy of regaining his previous status on a roster with Watson, a 13-year veteran coming off a career-best 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns with the New Orleans Saints, and Crockett Gillmore, a third-year player who showed promise with 33 receptions for 412 yards and four touchdowns before getting hurt last season.
"I don't feel like I lost a step. I don't feel like I'm any slower or do anything different than I did a couple of years ago. That's my goal. I want to be the lead guy," Pitta said. "… But I think we all have that mentality. We all want to be the lead guy. We don't want to sit behind anyone else. … As long as I can continue playing the way I have, I feel confident."
The situation could change depending on the outcome of the MRI Gillmore had done after hurting his hamstring at practice Friday.
"There's a lot of competition. It's a deep group of tight ends," Pitta said. "We've got a lot of studs in this group. It's exciting. You get a little more rest at practice. You get pushed every time you're out there. You have to play well. You have to show you can add some value to this group and find a way on the field. I think that's all our focus right now."
While others might look for signs of rust or what happens when he has to rotate his body in order to make a play, Pitta said he isn't thinking about his hip that much.
"Honestly, there's nothing I do out on the field that I worry about or think about or gives me a different feeling — bending this way or twisting that way," he said after playfully teasing a reporter for asking so many hip-related questions. "It's not something that throughout the course of practice I'm thinking about one bit, which is good. It's really positive."