The greatest disappearing act of Justin Madubuike’s NFL career took less than two seconds to pull off. It happened eight months ago, inside the 30-yard line of the Ravens’ wild-card-round playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, not the place you’d expect a 300-pound defensive lineman to go full David Copperfield.
The Titans, already up 7-0 in the first quarter, were running the ball at Madubuike. Left tackle David Quessenberry and left guard Rodger Saffold converged on the rookie, a 635-pound double team blotting him out like a solar eclipse. Madubuike, his body coiled back and his front leg almost kneeling, could not see what was happening behind the human wall that had slammed into him. But he knew it was only temporary; one of the linemen, soon enough, would be looking for another target further upfield.
Saffold disengaged first, and Madubuike sprang out of his stance like a jack-in-the-box that had been cranked far enough. His separation was sudden: Quessenberry fell over, and All-Pro running back Derrick Henry, seeing Madubuike close a road that had looked otherwise open, made a sudden detour. A jump cut to his left took him off course.
“The whole point of that is to make sure that he doesn’t get in my gap, man, and gets no yardage,” Madubuike said. “And that’s what happened.”
He made sure of it, grabbing Henry by the waist and dragging him to his knees for just a 1-yard gain. In a run-stopping performance for the ages — the Ravens held Henry, the NFL’s rushing king, to a season-low 40 yards on 18 carries in an eventual 20-13 win — Madubuike was an unsung hero up front, chasing down runs from the back side and blowing them up on the play side.
No sequence epitomized Madubuike’s awesome potential more than the close-up magic that had the Titans jumping wildly, falling over themselves. It was a preview of the year to come. Madubuike has been a breakthrough performer at Ravens training camp, rarely leaving practice without a tackle for loss or sack added to his tally. Analysts have pegged him as a rising star. Teammates have raved about his growth. Defensive line coach Anthony Weaver said he has “all the talent in the world.”
Madubuike is aware of his burgeoning powers. He knows not a lot of linemen look like him (“I’m kind of skinny and thick at the same time”). He knows not a lot of players have Calais Campbell as a mentor. He knows how much the Ravens defense needs from its young pass rushers. And yet …
“I don’t really know what I can be,” he said in a recent interview. “Just doing the same thing over and over and over and over and not getting bored — I get bored easily — I’m not disciplined — those are my kryptonite. Those are things that I’m aware that I’m not good at, and have a willingness to attack it. So it’s just all about growing up as a player and developing as an athlete and doing the right thing.”
That was hard to do at times last year, during a rookie season Madubuike called “tough.” He missed the Ravens’ first four games with a knee injury. He missed another two amid the team’s coronavirus outbreak. He didn’t post his first sack until Week 16, and finished the season with only seven quarterback pressures, according to Sports Info Solutions, just ahead of run stopper Brandon Williams (six).
Madubuike came into camp looking for a playing weight, he said, “that fits me and my skill set.” Last year, his weight bounced between 305 and 310 pounds — “I was kind of on the girthier side.” Now Madubuike’s around 295 pounds, as light as he’s been in years.
He has not played like he’s lost anything. In a one-on-one pass-rush drill early in camp, Madubuike won three straight repetitions and made each look easy, a flash of the form that led to 13 sacks over his final two college seasons. As a run defender, he’s “one of the harder people I’ve ever had to move on defense, honestly,” center Bradley Bozeman said.
“If you were going to draw up who you wanted in a three-technique, that’s how you’d draw them up,” said defensive end Derek Wolfe, referring to a lineman who aligns over a guard’s outside shoulder. “His explosiveness, his strength, his bend — he’s the full package, man. He’s going to be — once he really understands how good he is and he really grasps that — he’s going to be dangerous, and he’s a smart kid, too, so he’ll pick it up quick.”
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So how did Madubuike, Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated rookie defensive tackle in 2020, last until the third round of the draft, No. 71 overall? As a prospect, there were concerns about his size — he has small hands and average-size arms for a 6-foot-3 lineman — and his power. Other scouting reports cited “off-the-field issues” and “character concerns,” though he never landed in the police blotter at Texas A&M.
Madubuike heard the naysaying during the predraft process. He just doesn’t know who the naysayers were. Maybe it was team officials trying to drive him down other teams’ draft boards, he speculated. Maybe it was because he had two defensive coordinators and two positional coaches in his three years in College Station.
“People didn’t really get to know who I really was,” he said. “I was also the guy who, for the first two years of college, I didn’t really play nothing. I didn’t really play at all. I had to make a name for myself quickly. It came with a sense of urgency and attitude at a different grit to play the game. But maybe it rubbed coaches the wrong way in college. But that’s OK, you know. I’m here where I am now, and I’m ready to just look forward in peace and get better.”
In Baltimore, he’s on a Ravens team “that accepts me, that loves me for who I am.” Veteran linemen Derek Wolfe, Brandon Williams, Justin Ellis and Campbell have taken Madubuike under their wing, sharing their combined decades of wisdom in meetings and at practice.
The son of a father who sprinted competitively in Nigeria (“This dude was like a stick”) and a stout, strong mother (“I get my size from my mom”), Madubuike is figuring out just who he is, just what he can be. He inherited a drop-top convertible from his dad but recently purchased a Chevy Silverado 1500 truck that’s more his style. He’s earned a couple of nicknames from teammates — “Madabeeks,” “Madabeast” — but goes by “Mad-Man” on Instagram. He believes that, even in a pass-first league, linemen have to “earn the right to rush the passer.”
That last credo he took from Campbell, whose wisdom Madubuike has embraced. The veteran’s best lesson has been on the value of sacrifice: The energy Madubuike could put into playing video games or partying would be more fulfilling if it’s poured into his career. There’s nothing magical about self-improvement.
“You wake up every day, having a plan: ‘This is when, every day on Monday in practice, I’m going to learn how to rake down. I’m going to learn how to swim better. I’m going to learn how to take off better,’” he said. “And you just do that every single day. You have no other option but to get better.”