Much of the hype surrounding Baltimore Ravens’ second-year players have been centered around inside linebacker Patrick Queen and running back J.K. Dobbins, who were their first and second-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. However, the first of their four third-round picks from last year is receiving just as much hype from coaches and players.
That player is defensive tackle Justin Madubuike. While he may not be a household name yet, he might just be well on his way if you ask his Head Coach and veteran mentors on the defensive line.
“He played well last year, and I do think he’s taken a big step,” HC John Harbaugh said during Mandatory Minicamp last week. “The growth he’s made between Texas A&M, where he was a good player, but there were things that maybe a first-round talent type guy that people . . . He dropped to the third round for whatever reason, and we were very, very fortunate and blessed to get him there.”
Madubuike didn’t put up gaudy stats in 2020 and his rookie debut was delayed due to a knee injury he suffered in his first training camp. Once he got healthy, though, he flashed his playmaking potential and was an integral piece on the Ravens’ defense down the stretch. He only recorded one sack in 12 games, including the playoffs, but was extremely stout against the run and still managed to generate a lot of interior pressure.
Harbaugh is encouraged by the way he’s progressed from where he started last year and is looking forward to seeing what he does in year two. Even though the team has yet to put on pads, Madubuike was still able to turn heads during the offseason program according to his coaches, peers, and multiple media reports.
“I’m excited about him,” said Harbaugh. “I can tell you the defensive line is excited about him, too. I saw Derek Wolfe over there celebrating with him a couple times on some things he did well. So, yes – we’re fired up about Madubuike.”
Six-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell thinks the 23-year-old should make a “big jump” in year two because of his immense amount of potential and technical refinement.
“He’s strong, he’s quick-twitchy, can get out of a stance very explosively, and then he’s learning how to play with a good technique consistently,” said Campbell. “I think he’s going to have a big year for us. I think he’s a guy who we can really depend on.
“He’s going to make all of our jobs a lot easier [with] what he can do inside, and he’s developing as a pass rusher too, so I think he’s going to put a lot more pressure on quarterbacks. I think he’s going to be a really good player in this league.”
One of the main reasons that players make the biggest jump of their careers from Year 1 to Year 2 is because they master or at least have a much greater understanding of their playbooks.
Their individual team’s scheme, how they fit in it and the general speed of the game at the professional level is something that many rookies struggle with coming up from the college game — and they often feel like they are treading water in their first years. Pro Bowl nose tackle Brandon Williams has already seen a lot of “good things” from him this offseason and is excited to see what Madubuike can do this year now that he’ll be playing looser.
“Man, [Justin] Madubuike can have as great of a season as he wants to,” Williams said. “What I see right now, after last year, he’s flying around. He has the playbook down a lot better. So, you can definitely see his feet being freed up because he’s thinking a lot less. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to bring on Sunday.”
After re-signing with the Ravens on a three-year deal earlier this offseason, veteran defensive tackle Derek Wolfe raved about Madubuike and his potential to be a star in the NFL.
Expect to see his snap count significantly increase this year. Even if he doesn’t start, he’ll be heavily involved in the defensive line rotation to keep himself and the starting veteran trio fresh over the course of the expanded upcoming season.
While the contract status of Williams and Campbell are uncertain after this season, if Madubuike delivers in the way that his coaches and teammates believe he can and will in 2021, the future will still look bright.