FOXBORO -- It was only two years ago that Stevan Ridley was known as the fun-loving second-year running back who cracked 1,000 yards rushing and wore onesies in the locker room after games.
Now? Now he's in the final year of his rookie deal, and he's the guy with the most NFL games played under his belt in the Patriots' young running backs room.
He's still the jocular 20-something (now 25) he's been since he was drafted, a player known for expressing himself in the media honestly and through his array of colorful cleats. But he feels as though this year he can be one of the team's leaders.
"I think really what coach [Belichick] says to us is being a leader isn't really about what you say, it's about what you do," Ridley said. "For me, going on year four, it's about time that I step in there and if the team calls on me and wants me to step in that leadership role, that's what I'm going to do.
"Kind of strange going from one of the younger guys in the room to one of the oldest, but time does that to you. I realize that, that there are some guys in behind me that are looking up to me. I have to do my job to stay on my toes and be a leader at all times, even when the coaches aren't around. Still have fun, but just be a leader and show these guys the right way to do things."
After racking up 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, Ridley saw his role diminished last season. Fumbles and the emergence of LeGarrette Blount kept him off the field for stretches, and now he's in a position where he must regain the trust of the Patriots coaching staff to be the lead back he thinks he is.
But there's more to it than that. A free agent after this season, he's playing for his next contract, wherever it may be.
"I have to be honest about it, it's there," Ridley answered when asked if he was thinking about his next deal. "But it's not my first concern. My first concern is going out there and being the best player for this team. If I go out there and have a productive year and do what I need to do, the contract will take care of itself.
"I'm not really gonna put too much thought into it. As you guys know, if I start thinking about that, it can easily be a distraction. I can't worry about that. I'm gonna have some good days, have some bad days, I'm just gonna keep working, keep grinding, keep my head in the dirt and keep grinding it out."
While nothing's guaranteed, Ridley would appear to be a roster lock for the Patriots once things are cut down to 53 players. He and Shane Vereen, also in the final year of his rookie deal, give the team an experienced one-two combination in the backfield. While Ridley thrives between the tackles and bouncing to the outside on inside handoffs, Vereen is a superior pass-catching threat out and can line up wide or in the slot.
Fourth-year back Brandon Bolden has had a tough camp through the first four days, but he's been a valued special teamer over the years and could be with the team come Week 1 but will have to earn his spot. Likewise, rookie fourth-rounder James White, who Ridley touted Sunday for impressing early, and undrafted rookies Roy Finch, Stephen Houston and Jonas Gray will all try to carve roles in the Patriots offense.
"The team's working hard," Ridley said, "we're really just trying to find our identity right now."
For all the bodies the Patriots have at the running-back position, Ridley is really their only experienced between-the-tackles runner with any kind of history of production. If he can hold onto the ball and revert to his form of two years ago, his from-the-ashes story arc would help the team reprise the hard-working identity it's established in the past.
And it would help him land a nice new deal.