TAMPA — On his first day of NFL training camp, during his first practice with the Ravens, Ryan Jensen decided to make his stand. An undersized, sixth-round pick from Division II Colorado State-Pueblo in 2014, he wanted to send the message that he was there to do the bullying, not to be bullied. So he picked a fight with 6-foot-4, 335-pound Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
"The story with Haloti, the first day of training camp, I just went in and it's one of those things where you pick a fight with the biggest, baddest guy on the team and you go with it," Jensen said. "I think I got that style from my college coach. I was an undersized guy, going into college at 230 pounds my freshman year and ended up having to start at tackle at that weight. The only way I could survive was to play nasty and play physical and play through the whistle. That's definitely where I kind of got that style from."
Jensen, 26, signed a four-year, $42 million contract that included $22 million guaranteed with the Bucs on Friday, making him the highest-paid center in the NFL.
When the free agent signing period began at noon Wednesday, the first three calls to agent Mike McCartney and five of the first eight were from teams wanting to sign Jensen: the Colts, Titans, Chiefs, Dolphins and Bucs.
The other teams had an interest in Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, according to Sports Illustrated's Peter King.
It's an amazing success story for Jensen, who was cut by the Ravens after his rookie season and signed to the practice squad. He didn't become a full-time starter until last season when the Ravens traded center Jeremy Zuttah to the 49ers.
Despite his new riches, Jensen says he still sees himself as that skinny kid at Colorado State-Pueblo.
"You can't forget where you've been," Jensen said. "A great player I talked to, he kind of said that. I asked him one time, 'Why do you play the way you play?' He talked to me and goes, 'When you've come from where I came from, in a bad situation, and you get to where you're at, you never want to go to that bad situation.' So that's kind of how I see myself reflecting on my early career.
"Definitely, I play with a chip on my shoulder my entire career. D-II guy, late-round draft pick. Stuff like that. You can't lose that chip on your shoulder. Once you get comfortable, that's when things start to regress."
Jensen was impressed by the number of teams that showed an interest in signing him. The only visits he made were to Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. The Bucs were willing to move Ali Marpet from center back to guard. The Colts were committed to Ryan Kelly at center.
"There were quite of few other teams coming in wanting me to sign with them," Jensen said. "Ultimately, I chose Tampa just because like I felt it was the best fit for me. Looking at the roster and stuff like that, I'm excited where this team could go and I'm excited to help lead this team."
Last week, before visiting Indianapolis, Jensen said he had dinner with Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith. Although he said the subject of Marpet having to move back to guard never came up, he got the feeling Marpet was cool with it.
"He seemed fine," Jensen said. "I know Ali, just from the short time I talked with him, he's excited to get going and start winning some games."
Signing his first big contract gave Jensen reason to reflect a little on his NFL career. It nearly ended for him during his second season at training camp when he began losing weight and felt his strength slipping from. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.
"It changed my life; it might have saved my life, I don't know," Jensen said. "Sleep apnea is a very dangerous thing for people to deal with. It was my second year going into camp. I didn't know I had it at that time and my body was just falling apart. I was a constant bruise. I wasn't healing. I went from about 315 pounds to about 290 in about two weeks. I didn't know what was going on. After I got diagnosed with it and started my therapy, my body came back and it was life changing."
How Jensen can change the makeup of the Bucs offensive line remains to be seen. Tampa Bay was tied for 27th with 3.7 yards per rushing attempt. The Bucs allowed 40 sacks last season.
"I kind of see myself as a tone setter up front," Jensen said. "That's the way I play the game. Some people say I kind of play the game like they did back in the '80s and I take that as a compliment."