When the Ravens hit the practice field for the start of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) last month, wide receiver Jeremy Butler relished it.
Butler hadn't gone through an actual practice since training camp almost nine months ago, so even a voluntary practice in shorts was something to celebrate.
"I was like a kid in the candy store," Butler said with a laugh. "I finally got to run around, joke around with my teammates. It was like being let out of a cage."
Butler spent his rookie year on the sidelines after a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve as the Ravens made their final cuts. He could get treatment and sit in the meeting rooms, but he wasn't allowed to practice.
Getting sidelined stung, but it gave Butler a chance to heal and also to soak in the expectations of an NFL player.
"It was kind of bittersweet," Butler said. "It was still an opportunity to be in the NFL, but of course you want to play as a competitor. But as far as learning, getting a chance to develop, seeing how things work and being a pro, that was invaluable. That was a blessing in disguise."
Before getting injured, Butler showed promise during training camp. The undrafted receiver out of Tennessee-Martin is sure-handed and has good size (6-foot-2, 218 pounds).
The Ravens liked his potential, and had hopes he'd again compete for a roster spot once he was healthy. The early indication is that Butler has the ability to carve out a niche for himself, as he's impressed during OTAs.
Butler has been a popular target for the quarterbacks, making tough catches down the sidelines and over the middle of the field.
"I do think he has picked up where he left off and gotten better – stronger, a little faster," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "He has made some plays."
Finding a roster spot won't be easy in a crowded wide receiver field. The Ravens currently have 11 receivers on the roster, with an emphasis on young talent. Veteran Steve Smith Sr. is the only receiver older than 26, and Butler will be competing for a job with Michael Campanaro, Darren Waller, DeAndre Carter and others.
"Competition brings out the best in everybody. It's fun," Butler said. "We have a really good group, close-knit. We have fun out there, but at the same time we look out for each other and have each other's back. We all understand it's a business and we're competing."
The receiver battle will extend throughout the summer and into the preseason. With so many players competing for reps, the Ravens want to get a large sample size to determine who makes the cut.
"Who can do it and who can do it the next day, the day after that over the long haul?" Harbaugh asked. "We'll find out who those guys are."