Nobody on the Ravens defensive line is under the microscope more than Justin Madubuike heading into the 2023 season.
For good reason. Madubuike has statistically gotten better each year he’s been in the NFL. He’s cemented himself as a key player in the Ravens defense under coordinator Mike Macdonald and is an emerging name across the league.
But another reason eyeballs are on Madubuike is that he’s entering a contract year and there’s pressure to see if he’ll play well enough to warrant an extension to stay in Baltimore. The Ravens have expressed confidence Madubuike, 25, will have another big season, but a new deal hasn’t been completed.
Madubuike is coming off a career year. In 2022, he started a career-high 16 games and recorded 42 tackles and 5.5 sacks. That was a jump from 2021, when he had 36 tackles and two sacks, and a large leap from his rookie season in 2020, when he had just one sack and 19 tackles.
Madubuike said that growth came from his confidence and learning from the players before him.
“I think it’s just my inner hunger just to get better,” Madubuike said Friday. “Asking older guys like Calais [Campbell] things they did at my age to get better and just taking notes and applying it to my game. It’s just always never being satisfied and finding ways to get better and never stop asking questions and being a little kid.”
Part of his growth is also a credit to Chuck Smith, a former NFL defensive end and pass-rushing specialist coach the Ravens hired as their outside linebackers coach in March. He’s seen Madubuike’s development up close, having first worked with him dating back two years ago in Atlanta. Smith met Madubuike through former Ravens rusher Justin Houston.
“The evolution of the 3-4 defensive tackle is Madubuike,” Smith said. “He can rush; he can play the run; he’s aggressive; he’s physical. The sky’s the limit. It really is. He’s in that unique era where he’s going to continue to grow and he’s been coached well. He fits perfect in the defense. Madubuike is a dog and he comes to work every day and has passion and he’s a good teammate.”
Madubuike said the Smith at practice every day is the same Smith from the workouts they did together in Atlanta. Many of the concepts Smith preaches are relatable to him and the other pass rushers on the team because of his experience playing in the league. The terminology is understandable, and his credibility is valid.
Based on comments from John Harbaugh, Macdonald and Smith, the Ravens are clearly confident Madubuike will continue trending up this year. Further evidence of that was when the Ravens released Campbell in March, thrusting Madubuike into the starting job. They made that move because of Campbell’s age and because they’re confident in Madubuike’s next step.
Madubuike said he isn’t worrying much about his contract going into the season without one beyond it. He hasn’t changed his approach.
“Everybody goes through their contract year. That’s how I see it,” Madubuike said. “You just put your head down and work. I feel like, the more you think about it, the more it becomes a distraction. If you put your head down and work, I feel like everything will work itself out in the end.”
Here’s an overview of how Saturday will go with a look at what we’re paying attention to:
The 10th day of full-squad training camp practice starts at 1:20 p.m. at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills. After practice, Harbaugh will speak with reporters, followed by tight ends coach George Godsey, Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely.
ICYMI: Training camp coverage
What we’re looking for
A rebound from the offense
Friday was a rough and frustrating day on the offensive side. The defense forced multiple incompletions throughout the day, got pressure in the backfield, batted down passes and recorded an interception in 11-on-11s. Lamar Jackson punted a ball at one point before throwing his helmet to the ground. Tight end Mark Andrews flipped off a referee, looking for a pass interference call after a forced incompletion from safeties Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams. Emotions were high.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken said Thursday that the offense isn’t where it needs to be, and that’s been apparent for moments in camp. Can it make strides today?
More plays from Keaton Mitchell?
Undrafted rookie free agent running back Keaton Mitchell has been a bright spot.
Friday was one of his best practices. Mitchell broke off multiple runs of 10-plus yards — including two back-to-back in 11-on-11s — and he showcased his ability as a receiver, benefiting from much of the short and underneath passing game we’ve seen in camp from Ravens quarterbacks. Mitchell nearly had a long touchdown reception that would’ve been a play-of-the-day candidate, but he was forced out after making the reception.
The Ravens are basically set at running back whenever J.K. Dobbins returns from the physically-unable-to-perform list, but Mitchell has been leaving an impression on coaches. If he keeps making plays, he’ll make it hard for them not to give him some type of roster spot at the end of the month.
While it’s hard to truly grade much of what we see from special teams because full contact isn’t happening, returners made a few good plays Friday. As special teams coordinator Chris Horton said this week, the returner job is surely wide receiver Devin Duvernay’s, but this time can help players on the roster bubble who are looking to showcase their versatility.
Mitchell has been one of the players taking advantage of this with a few nice returns. Can anybody else?
Follow along for updates
The Banner will have multiple reporters at each day of training camp practice. Follow along for updates from them.