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Eisenberg: Justin Tucker Investment Excellent Risk/Reward Gamble


The last time the Ravens gave their kicker a nice contract, they regretted it fairly quickly. Remember when Billy Cundiff signed a reported five-year, $15 million deal after his All-Pro season in 2010? He only held the job for one season before Justin Tucker took it away in 2012.

The Ravens obviously made the right call in going with Tucker, then an undrafted rookie, but they reportedly had to swallow $2.4 million in "dead" money in 2012 and 2013 while clearing Cundiff's deal from their salary cap ledger. Now they're contemplating giving Tucker a long-term deal. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome broke the news last week in an interview with Kevin Byrne, the team's senior vice president of public and community relations. 

Newsome didn't offer any specifics, but Tucker is reportedly due to make $570,000 in 2014, and the going rate for top free agent kickers is a lot more, around $3 million a year. The team and Tucker haven't agreed to anything, but the Ravens know what it's going to take to lock him up and keep him off the open market, and my guess is there's a good chance a deal gets done.

Is it risky to give another kicker a nice deal so soon after the last one didn't really pan out? Sure. As they learned with Cundiff, kickers' prospects can rise and fall quickly.

But there's risk in handing any veteran a nice contract. Some respond better than others to the triumph of "cashing in." And in any case, every player's situation is unique, and I think investing in Tucker is an excellent risk/reward gamble.

Cundiff, 34, was and is an accomplished kicker who has made 160 NFL field goals, but he had signed deals with eight other teams before the Ravens picked him up in 2009. While he flourished here under Jerry Rosburg, the Ravens' special teams coordinator, and Randy Brown, their kicking consultant, there was always the slightly worrisome thought that he had been a journeyman for a long time before now.

Tucker, 24, has operated on a higher plane so far, missing just six of 74 field-goal attempts in his first two seasons while earning a reputation as one of the game's top kickers. In 2013, he broke Matt Stover's single-season franchise records for points scored and field goals made, kicked a 61-yard game-winner on "Monday Night Football," earned a Pro Bowl selection and made first-team All-Pro.

Of course, every kicker experiences rough moments along with the highs, and more surely are coming for Tucker, but watching him develop, there's reason to believe he could flourish in the Ravens' job for years. That's the criteria the team uses when deciding which young players to reward with "second" contracts. If you can envision a guy as a piece of the puzzle for a long time, why not lock him up?

My guess is the Ravens won't regret it a year later if they end up signing Tucker to a new deal.

According to Newsome's interview with Byrne, the Ravens are also trying to work out long-term deals with Jimmy Smith, Torrey Smith and Haloti Ngata.

While digesting that news, it's important to understand the yardstick they use in determining which guys to keep and which to let go. Basically, the Ravens look to re-sign a veteran if they don't feel they can replicate his production with young, cheaper alternatives. Conversely, if they feel they CAN replace the veteran at a better price, they let him go.

That's why re-signing Arthur Jones was not a priority, even though the Ravens were extremely fond of Jones and proud of his development. After drafting a batch of young defensive linemen in the past few years, the Ravens believed they could get by without Jones, especially when he commanded a high price on the open market, as expected.

Obviously, the Ravens don't feel they can replace either Jimmy Smith or Torrey Smith. It's hard to argue. At a position where the Ravens have struggled to develop big-time players, Torrey Smith has been a speedy, productive target. There's no young replacement bubbling up behind him. The same is certainly true with Jimmy Smith at cornerback. As for Ngata, by his own admission, he hasn't been quite as forceful in the past few years, but he seems healthier now and it will be interesting to see how he performs. He's a one-of-a-kind player, irreplaceable at any price if playing at his customary level.

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