When Justin Madubuike broke from the traditional set position, the power he exerted on the starting blocks resonated — “like an earthquake,” McKinney North High School track coach Melvin Crosby said.

Why does he know this about his former shot put and discus thrower? Because one day Madubuike, then a defensive lineman for the North Texas high school’s football team, got it in his head that he wanted to run.

“Everyone was running, and I wanted to run, too,” Madubuike said. “I’m like, ‘I want to run. I’m not fat. I’m strong. That’s why I’m throwing shot put. But I’m fast. I want to run.’”

Crosby agreed to put him in a JV race, so Madubuike bought the correct shoes and started working on the blocks. In his very first race, he blew the competition away.

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To this day, Crosby regrets that there are no recordings of the race — or the reactions of all the opposing coaches as this lineman flew by all the much skinnier, smaller actual runners.

“It’s like ... being out on the ocean and maybe seeing a blue whale, just something like, ‘No one that big should be moving that fast,’” Crosby said.

Football head coach Mike Fecci was in attendance, and said Madubuike thought he was a “world-class sprinter” after that. That is, until he ran a few more races and didn’t place first.

“I was killing them! I was determined,” Madubuike, now a Pro Bowl tackle with the AFC North champion Ravens, said with a laugh recently. “But then I got cocky. I didn’t want to practice. I ran again, and then I got embarrassed.”

His sprinting career was short-lived, but athleticism has been a hallmark of his career. He’s always had a tantalizing combination of speed and power, but this year he’s finally put it together to reach the Pro Bowl in a season those close to him say has been a long time coming.

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Madubuike recorded a sub-five-second 40-yard sprint at the NFL scouting combine. He outpaced several of the much lighter quarterbacks. His 4.83 coming out of Texas A&M impressed NFL coaches and scouts — as well as the other players in attendance.

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“He’s got a great mix of strength, density, as well as quickness and track speed,” said Ravens right guard Kevin Zeitler, who has had to compete against him at practice. “The fact that it can all be put in that package makes it really difficult.”

But, as Zeitler pointed out, it’s one thing to do it in practice. It’s another to do it when it counts, under the lights of an NFL stadium. And for the first two years of his pro career, Madubuike couldn’t put it together consistently. In his third year, he showed a hint of his potential.

Then he showed up for his fourth training camp.

“He’s always been a handful, but this year, all of training camp, you could tell he was doing it on another level, driving us crazy,” Zeitler said.

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He’s been driving opposing quarterbacks crazy, as well. Using that shot put strength and sprinter speed, he’s bypassed milestones and tied a league record for recording at least half a sack in 11 consecutive games.

To understand how he made the leap in Year 4 — with a season that should make him one of the most sought-after free agents of the offseason — it helps to look at the path that brought him here.

Getting noticed

Justin Madubuike, #92 of the Baltimore Ravens, leaves the field following his team's victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Stadium on Dec. 17, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida. Madubuike tied an NFL record for 11 straight games with at least .5 sacks. (Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

When Crosby picked Madubuike up for his first high school football workout, the freshman asked whether college scouts would be able to find and recruit him at McKinney North, where he had just transferred. Crosby took one look at him said, “They’ll find you.”

Even then, Madubuike was an intimidating figure. And that was when he still might have been sneaking some pizza rolls and Pop-Tarts into his diet, Crosby said.

Madubuike found success on high school football fields across Texas immediately. Crosby has a vivid memory of Madubuike reaching through two linemen and a running back to sack a quarterback with one arm. He swears Madubuike intimidated the opponent so much, it was enough to pull off an upset.

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It’s funny to think he ever worried about being recruited, Crosby said. The offers, all 26 of them, poured in. And once he went to Texas A&M, his power and speed again led to quick success. He appeared in every game his redshirt freshman year and won the team’s defensive Most Valuable Player award by his sophomore year, followed by another his junior year. When he decided to declare early, several mock drafts projected him to go in the first round, but he fell to the third. The Ravens were the lucky ones to scoop him up at pick No. 71.

Once Madubuike hit the NFL, he learned that talent and size aren’t enough — all the small details have to be taken care of, too, Fecci said. But Madubuike has always been on a quest for new ways to keep his body at peak performance level.

This season, he decided to stop eating after 8:30 p.m. because it leaves him feeling bloated the next day when he goes to work. He’s increased his hydration, although he gets bored of water sometimes, so he’s had to come up with healthy alternatives like mixing in electrolyte powders or juices that aren’t too sugary. He’s also emphasized sleep. He laughed a little as he admitted to having a 10:30 p.m. bedtime.

“Going to bed on time is huge,” Madubuike said. “Super, super underrated. Nobody wants to hear it.”

The result? A body that impresses in a locker room full of athletes competing at the highest level.

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“He’s shredded,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “Have you ever seen the guy with his shirt off? The guy looks like a wild animal. I wish I looked like that.”

It makes sense why he’s so dominant on the field, Smith said. But brawn is only a small part of Madubuike’s success story.

Questioning everything

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) celebrates after sacking Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) during the third quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Fecci always preached to his team that there were no dumb questions.

“If you have one, ask,” Fecci told the locker room. “And boy, did he.”

Madubuike’s questions have become a defining characteristic of who he is as a person. In meetings and out of them, he’s constantly inquiring about the world.

“I’m interested in people and why things are the way” that they are, Madubuike said. “I question everything. I’m kind of like a conspiracy theorist a little bit. I just question things. Because the world’s very interesting. People are interesting. People come from all walks of life, different perspectives. And that’s interesting to me.”

Without pride or fear holding him back, Madubuike is always prepared mentally. You know he is, because if he isn’t, he’ll ask. Sometimes people laugh at him, he said, but he doesn’t mind because he gets his answer in the end.

Madubuike pairs his curiosity with observational skills and a good memory. Former Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell, a mentor of his, was astounded by his repository of knowledge when the team would do a “Jeopardy!”-style game to prepare. The coaches would throw in random nonfootball-related questions, and somehow, Madubuike knew the answers to the hardest ones.

That constant desire to understand and to gain knowledge to better himself is really the root of Madubuike’s success. It might be in a very physical field, but it all goes back to his mind, he said.

“You get physically better by going through mental breakthroughs or [setting] mental goals for yourself,” Madubuike said.

But even with the size and strength to match his inquisitive mind, something was missing for Madubuike in the early part of his NFL career. He started three games as a rookie and 11 the next year, but registered only three sacks total and was inconsistent at best.

He — and those who had helped him get to that point — knew he could be better.

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Passing the test, finally

With a few exceptions, most rookies “suck,” Campbell said. But with defensive linemen, it’s usually Year 3 where you truly see if they’re going to make it.

In 2022, Madubuike had 5.5 sacks, 42 tackles and nine quarterback hits in 17 games. You had an idea he could dominate, Campbell said, but he was still just part of the rotation.

One year later, he has more than doubled his sack total and almost quadrupled his quarterback hits. He’s surpassed his tackle total by 14. And he’s also affecting the games in other ways, ranking 23rd among qualifying interior defensive linemen in pass-rush win rate (14%), according to Pro Football focus, and sixth in total pressures (64).

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) pressures Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023.
Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) pressures Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Those around him at the Ravens facility each day said nothing’s changed this year, it was only a matter of time with the way he approaches every day — he never has a bad day, and has always been interested in every method or move that can improve his game, defensive line coach Anthony Weaver said.

But to take off like this, something had to have changed. And one of the biggest differences has been the absence of Campbell, something Campbell himself knows makes a huge difference. It’s the first time Madubuike gets the chance to be “The Guy,” Campbell said.

Madubuike saw the hole left by Campbell ahead of the season and knew he was the “right man to fill the void.” With the realization, he said he started taking more accountability. From giving it all on every practice repetition to holding himself accountable to his early bedtime, he said that’s been the biggest difference that no one else can necessarily see.

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He also started training his body to carry more snaps by incorporating “more running, more gassers,” Madubuike said at Ravens training camp. And he took a greater interest in learning skill moves, according to Ravens outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith, who used to privately train pass rushers, including Madubuike. Before games, he works on each move, from the spin to the cross-chop to the chop-drive.

For the past three years, Madubuike keeps a journal with him, where he tries to keep track of his goals. But he struggled to set them this year because every time he wrote something down, he thought “it’s not high enough, it’s not high enough.” He did not reveal what he settled on, but he was probably right.

Since he returned to Baltimore this season, there’s “nothing about him that isn’t an A-plus,” coach John Harbaugh said.

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Prior to his breakout season, Madubuike was selected to be inducted into his high school’s Hall of Fame, a ceremony that will happen this month. School officials will have a lot more to add to his write-up, which currently mentions his high school and college stats and that he was drafted by the Ravens.

Looking back, Fecci and Crosby agreed they knew he had a chance to make the NFL but said they’d be lying if they thought he’d break 10 sacks in a season. Yet they’re not exactly surprised.

“He may not have been a great football player, but he was going to be great at something,” Crosby said. “He was going to do something special.”

What’s next?

Madubuike said he plays for the love of the game. Campbell is the same way — “but the money is nice.”

Ahead of this season, Madubuike took a gamble. The Ravens wanted to sign him to a contract extension, according to ESPN, but Madubuike decided he wanted to play out his contract and revisit the conversation as a free agent.

Since then, every sack he’s recorded has added millions to what to what he could be worth. For some people, that makes it easier to push harder, when every rep works toward more money, Campbell said. But thinking that way doesn’t work for Madubuike.

At training camp, Madubuike said that after his decision was made, he put his contract out of his mind and focused on himself.

“I feel like the more you think about it, the more it becomes a distraction,” he said in August. “If you put your head down and work, I feel like everything will work itself out in the end.”

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Whether he’s thinking about it or not, his gamble has paid off. Madubuike’s current contract, his rookie deal, has an average annual value of $1.2 million. Spotrac estimates he could make $20.3 million a year as a free agent. PFF’s estimate is even higher, at $23 million. The Ravens could choose to use the franchise tag on him, which would give him a one-year deal of close to $20 million, according to Over The Cap’s projections.

It’s exciting for those back home, like Fecci and Crosby, to see him go off in his contract year. Crosby said it doesn’t always work out for players that their best seasons come the year before they negotiate a contract — but at the same time, he doesn’t think there’s any price that would change the way Madubuike has played.

“He deserves whatever he’s going to hopefully get,” Fecci said. “I don’t think that’s what motivates him to the level it does others. I think what motivates him is just being great at what he does. All that stuff that comes from it is just icing on the cake.”

Crosby said it’s been wonderful to see how the city of Baltimore has embraced Madubuike, and Fecci said he’s a very loyal person. The Ravens would certainly like to keep him, but they have difficult decisions to make.

Madubuike isn’t the only Raven who has stepped up in his contract year. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen had a Pro Bowl season. Safety Geno Stone has outperformed expectations. PFF lists four other Ravens among their top-100 free agent rankings. If every player receives what PFF estimates to be their average annual value, the Ravens would have to pay the seven of them $79 million a year.

With all the contracted players returning next year, the Ravens have about $18 million in cap space, based on Russell Street Report’s calculations (which, as of this writing, do not yet include defensive lineman Michael Pierce’s extension).

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) talks to linebacker Patrick Queen (6) between plays during the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Madubuike is the most expensive of their pending free agents but also potentially the most important. One could argue that pass rushers are the second-most important position in football. As offenses rely more on the pass, defenses need to rely more on those who can disrupt the pass.

And Madubuike has proven that he can be incredibly disruptive. In addition to his 13 sacks, he has 33 hurries, according to PFF. He’s also effective at taking on blockers, which creates room for the team’s dynamic inside linebackers. It’s up to Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta to decide whether Madubuike or Queen is more important — if he can find a way to keep either of them.

Either way, Madubuike has big things coming to him, and he deserves them all, his teammates say. But for now, they’ll enjoy him while they have him as they look for a Super Bowl run.

“We’re all elated,” Pierce said about Madubuike’s success. “He’s been working hard since he’s been in the league. And for him to be able to realize his dreams, and I’m sure he probably surpassed some things he may have thought he could do, but for us, he’s been huge. He’s a driver for our defense, especially our pass rush up front. … I can see it happening, the work he’s put in.”

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