OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Each year in training camp undrafted free agent rookies have an uphill battle. Very few end the preseason on the 53-man roster, though all believe they belong.
This year is no different, as two undrafted rookies have stood out among the rest.
Receiver Deonte Thompson and running back Bobbie Rainey have both placed themselves in an early position to earn a roster spot. Thompson, who played college football at Florida, has blazing speed and has shown it in practice against some of the team's better defensive backs.
Rainey ran for over 1,600 yards in 2010 and 2011 at Western Kentucky, becoming the school's career rushing leader. Both possess traits that could put them on special teams in different roles — Thompson on the coverage and return teams, and Rainey as a return specialist.
The success both rookies have had has come somewhat of a surprise. Rainey was originally an afterthought in the battle for the two backup spots on the roster. Thompson was also seen as an outsider, especially considering Baltimore drafted receiver Tommy Streeter in the sixth round.
"I'm just going to keep going hard, to show what I can do," Thompson said. "I'm trying to make the best of my opportunity."
You could make the case that Thompson was humbled by his college experience. Coming out of high school in 2007, Thompson was a five-star recruit, according to Scout.com. He redshirted his freshman season but had continuity issues within the offense. During his five years at Florida, Thompson played for three offensive coordinators, three receivers coaches and two head coaches.
After catching 38 passes for 570 yards and a touchdown in Urban Meyer's spread offense in 2010, Thompson's numbers slipped to 21 receptions for 264 yards and one touchdown under Will Muschamp's pro-style attack. Each year there was a transition, not to mention tremendous depth. During his first couple of years he was an afterthought in a passing attack that featured Percy Harvin, Andre Caldwell, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez.
Rainey, on the other hand, was a star at Western Kentucky. He was the focal point of the offense and proved he could play against legitimate competition. He ran for 85 yards against LSU in 2011, and could've had over 100 if he didn't lose 17 yards on a busted halfback pass play.
But he wasn't heavily recruited coming out of Griffin High School (Ga.) in 2008. Georgia never recruited him and Georgia Tech followed him for a while until they got his SAT score. Though the Yellow Jackets' academic standards were too high for Rainey, he qualified for Western Kentucky, which recruited him hard from the onset.
The Hilltoppers reaped the reward and watched Rainey blossom into one of the best players in school history.
"The numbers don't lie," Rainey said. "I ended up having a good career there. I guess the conference I was in, or whatever, I may have gotten overlooked. But it still doesn't explain the fact that when we played other teams I was able to do what I did."
Thompson's looking to do what LaQuan Williams did a year ago, and that's become Baltimore's sixth receiver on the roster as an undrafted free agent. His main competition is Streeter, who's 6-5 and runs a 4.4 40-yard dash.
But there's no denying that Thompson's outplayed Streeter though the first few weeks of camp. During Tuesday's practice, Thompson lined up as the No. 3 receiver with Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss missing practice. Thompson also helped his cause last Thursday against Atlanta when he caught three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Rainey's battling for one of two spots behind Ray Rice, and competing with Bernard Pierce, Damien Berry and Anthony Allen. That means four players vying for two positions. Rainey's 140 total yards (36 rushing, 28 receiving, 76 return) against Atlanta raised eyebrows, as well as the touchdown he scored on a screen pass, where he cut back against an over-pursuing Atlanta defense en route to the end zone.
Both undrafted rookies still have a lot of work to do to make the roster. Three preseason games remain, as well as a ton of practice time. Thompson and Rainey are off to a good start, but they'll need to continue to elevate their level of play to be a part of the 53-man roster at the end of the preseason.
"It's a long camp, that's why we have the number of reps we do," coach John Harbaugh said. "We play for the four preseason games to find out. We give our guys every opportunity. We will know by the end of the preseason who our best 53 players are."
Rookies Thompson, Rainey fighting for spots
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