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Ray Rice must prove himself on field

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Ray Rice has resolved his situation with the court system as well as the NFL, although many will argue both were too lenient with the Baltimore Ravens running back.

The biggest remaining question with Rice is whether he's a legitimate starting running back in the NFL anymore. This is a make-or-break season for Rice, and it will likely determine his future with the Ravens.

Rice is coming off a career-worst season in which he averaged 3.1 yards per carry, which was better than only two other starting running backs (Trent Richardson and Willis McGahee). Now, Rice has to adapt to the running scheme of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, which may not suit the three-time Pro Bowl running back.

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick recently said he believes backup Bernard Pierce is a better fit than Rice because he is a big, physical back who is a one-cut runner. Pierce is expected to fill in for Rice during the two-game suspension.

"So, it's going to be interesting to see if they can get this [running game] cranked up the first couple of games ... what happens to Ray Rice, who tends to be a little bit more of a patter in a hole type of a guy," Billick said on the NFL Network.

Rice will take the field for the first time since his return to the team Thursday, when the Ravens open the preseason against the San Francisco 49ers. His effectiveness will get scrutinized throughout the preseason because it will be his most extensive action until his suspension is over Sept. 12.

He has gained 6,180 yards in his career -- second most in Ravens history -- with his lateral quickness in between the tackles. His style hasn't been the "one cut and go upfield" that is the signature of Kubiak's stretch running system.

The Ravens, though, have seen signs of Rice meshing in this type of ground attack. Running backs coach Thomas Hammock said Rice "looks comfortable" in the new system.

"He’s been very patient with the zone runs, which is something that I believe to be an improvement over the past [few years] -- even two years ago," coach John Harbaugh said.

From 2009 to 2011, Rice was considered one of the NFL's best all-around backs, leading the league in total yards. Last season, he managed one 20-yard run, which was as many as quarterback Joe Flacco had.

Rice has lost 15 pounds since the end of last season and has looked explosive in training camp. It's a critical year for Rice because the Ravens simply aren't going to pay him $3 million in 2015 if he's the NFL's 30th-ranked rusher again.

"Comparisons to years in the past -- we’ll find all that out during the season," Harbaugh said. "But he’s in tremendous shape. I’m seeing him make a good lateral cut. He has really good burst, acceleration is there [and] vision is there. He’s catching the ball well [and his] pass protection has been very good. Ray looks really good.”