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Late for Work 6/5: How Justin Tucker Almost Became a Steeler 

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How Justin Tucker Almost Became a Steeler

How weird would it have been to see Justin Tucker in black and gold?

It almost happened.

In a an excellent feature from The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec, Tucker said he received preliminary interest from the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent after participating in the Ravens’ rookie minicamp on a tryout basis.

The Ravens didn’t immediately sign Tucker following minicamp, and he was stuck in limbo waiting for a potential contract offer. When the Steelers called offering Tucker an opportunity to work out for them, Tucker told them, “Let’s pump the brakes because I need to see this other opportunity through to the end.”

“A couple of days go by, and I don’t hear anything,” Tucker said. “I don’t hear anything from the Steelers. I don’t hear anything from the Ravens. I was kind of taking a pretty big risk. I trusted Coach [Jerry] Rosburg. I didn’t necessarily have some crazy compelling reason to. It just felt right. I just felt like this is a guy who I should trust. A couple of weeks go by; I finally get the call.”

As Zrebiec pointed out, Tucker’s rise to becoming one of the NFL’s elite kickers began just two days before the 2012 NFL Draft.

In a pre-draft interview with Rosburg that “hit on pretty much everything,” Tucker thought he squandered his chances by talking about the rap group he was in with former Raven Sergio Kindle, but his charisma and his kicking skills were good enough to earn a shot with the Ravens.

“A hard-driving coach and not easily impressed, Rosburg’s belief in Tucker was strengthened,” Zrebiec wrote. “He noticed some fundamental areas where Tucker needed to improve, but those could be coached. What couldn’t be was leg speed and strength and unflappable confidence and belief. Tucker had those things covered.”

The Ravens are one of the most successful teams when it comes to finding undrafted talent. At least one undrafted rookie has made the 53-man roster in Baltimore for 15 straight seasons, and Tucker is among the best to do it. Now he’s the NFL’s best, and top-paid, kicker.

Tucker has undoubtedly been one of the Ravens’ most dangerous offensive weapons and has even received some MVP consideration.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell looked at the odds for 223 players to win the 2019 NFL MVP award and Tucker was his top pick among the kickers.

Former Washington Redskins kicker Mark Moseley is the only player at the position to win the award (1982), and like Tucker’s odds were stacked against him coming into the NFL, so are his MVP odds.

“What you would need, realistically, is a season in which a team goes 13-3 with a great team defense, a middling offense, and a kicker who hit 95% of his attempts and booted through 10 game winners,” Barnwell wrote. “Tucker is the most obvious candidate to pull that off, but remember that Moseley was a middling veteran kicker with one Pro Bowl appearance across his first 12 seasons in the NFL before winning league MVP.”

But even Barnwell admitted that crazier things have happened.

“History tells us, though, that strange things can happen in an NFL season,” Barnwell wrote. “If a 34-year-old kicker, a 28-year-old NFL Europe backup, and a guy with one career start to his name can all win MVP in their own respective seasons, just about anything is possible in 2019.”

Which Undrafted Free Agents Have Best Path to 53-man Roster?

Staying on the theme of undrafted players, PennLive’s Aaron Kasinitz took an in-depth position-by-position look at the best paths for undrafted rookies to make the Ravens’ 53-man roster.

Kasinitz broke down the paths in three categories: open, up in the air, and narrow.

According to Kasinitz, tight end, defensive line, outside linebacker and inside linebacker provide the best paths for undrafted players.

Defensive tackle Gerald Willis was highly-regarded talent coming out of Miami and one of the top undrafted players in the 2019 class. Kasinitz believes Willis should have a strong chance at earning a roster spot following Gerald McCoy’s decision to sign with the Carolina Panthers.

“Injuries have kept him off the practice field the past two weeks, but Willis should have every chance to earn a role in the team’s defensive line rotation if he can stay healthy after the Ravens missed out on signing six-time Pro Bowler McCoy,” Kasinitz wrote.

The outside linebacker position also provides an intriguing conversation. After the departures of Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, the door could open for an undrafted player to make the roster.

“Aside from Matt Judon, a rising fourth-year star, none of the Ravens’ edge rushers are cemented into roster spots,” Kasinitz wrote. “... That means [Markus] Jones, [Aaron] Adeoye, and [Michael] Onuoha should have fair chances to wiggle into the fold, and it shouldn’t matter that they all come from small college programs. The Ravens drafted Judon out of Grand Valley State.”

Decisions could get more complicated at wide receiver and offensive line.

The Ravens revamped the receiving corps this offseason, and the depth chart features a wealth of young talent. Still, Janarion Grant made it as an undrafted wideout last season, and Kasinitz pointed to Antoine Wesley as a player to watch.

“Baltimore took four wide receivers in the past two drafts, so the UDFAs face odds that are somewhat stacked before the position battle ramps up,” Kasinitz wrote. “Tie will go to the draft pick. Wesley, a tall wideout who pulled down a one-handed catch at a practice last month, has made a strong impression in practices open to the media.”

Even with the Ravens’ track record of finding undrafted talent on the offensive line, depth at the position makes it one of the hardest paths to the 53-man roster, according to Kasinitz.

“Baltimore won’t turn away a preseason star, but the depth chart is clogged at the fringe of the roster,” Kasinitz wrote. “[Marcus] Applefield, [Patrick] Makari or [Patrick] Vahe will need to display starter potential in training camp to have a shot at making the team.”

Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey Among the Best Outside Cornerbacks

Praise for the Ravens’ secondary continues this offseason.

USA Today’s Doug Farrar ranked the NFL’s best 11 outside cornerbacks. Marlon Humphrey (No. 10) and Brandon Carr (No. 4) were the only pair of teammates to make Farrar’s list.

Humphrey has emerged as one of the top young talents at cornerback and expectations continue to increase heading into his third season.

“Entering a highly complex system, Humphrey didn’t miss a beat—he’s allowed fewer than half the passes thrown to him to be completed in his two NFL seasons, and his opponent passer rating of 65.0 in combined seasons is among the NFL’s best,” Farrar wrote. “Whether he’s playing tight to the receiver or in off-coverage, he has a great understanding of the timing and angles of routes, allowing him to close on the ball efficiently and accurately. Equal parts athlete and technician, Humphrey should continue to rise on lists like these.”

Carr, who Farrar called “the most underrated player” on the list, backed up the praise with a fantastic season in 2018.

“The 33-year-old veteran diagnoses routes as well as anyone in the business, and he’s still outstanding in short-to-intermediate coverage because he’s so good with his feet off the line of scrimmage, and in matching quick, angular routes,” Farrar wrote. “Carr will occasionally get beaten over the top, but that’s the only glaring issue for a guy who was thought to be washed up a few years back, and has reinvented himself rather impressively.”

Quick Hits

  • Zach Orr is heading into the North Texas Athletics Hall of Fame.
  • The Ravens will travel 15,624 miles throughout the 2019 regular season, 15th most in the NFL.

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