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Finding Justin Tucker: How Ravens landed ‘best in history of the game’ – Baltimore Ravens Blog

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After the Baltimore Ravens signed Justin Tucker to a record-setting deal for an NFL kicker a couple of months ago, the conversation soon steered to the first time coach John Harbaugh took notice of him.

Originally a tryout player, Tucker hit a 55-yard field goal during the first day of rookie minicamp.

“It was like, ‘Wow, he’s pretty good! Where’d we find this guy?'” Harbaugh recalled.

Tucker responded, “I was hiding at the University of Texas.”

Despite playing for one of the most visible programs in college football, Tucker was invisible in the kicking landscape seven years ago. A kicker and a punter for the Longhorns, Tucker wasn’t named to the All-Big 12 first team or second team and wasn’t even an honorable mention. He didn’t receive an invitation to the scouting combine. Tucker wasn’t one of the four kickers drafted in 2012 and instead watched Randy Bullock, Greg Zuerlein, Blair Walsh and John Potter get selected.

Tucker has since become the most accurate kicker in NFL history, making 90.1 percent of his field goals. Setting a new standard for the position, he is the first player to produce six seasons with 30-plus field goals and became the fastest pure kicker to reach the 900-point milestone. All of this earned him a four-year, $20.45 million extension in April.

How the Ravens unearthed Tucker is a story about some pre-draft subterfuge, a gutsy snub of a division rival, the best veto of Harbaugh’s career and a lot of Tex-Mex food.

Tucker’s journey to Baltimore began with, of all things, a miss — one of the biggest failed field goals in NFL postseason history — and a spot-on prediction:

Rob Roche, Tucker’s agent: “I remember watching the Ravens’ AFC Championship Game [on Jan. 23, 2012] against New England with my two boys. I saw Billy Cundiff miss that 35-yarder wide left. I said to my kids, ‘Justin Tucker is going to be with the Ravens next year.’ You know why? Justin had that mental makeup to hit clutch field goals.”

Paul Tucker, Justin’s father: “I was watching that game, and I got a text from a good friend of mine: ‘Did you just see that? They need Justin.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, great. But for now, no one is banging on the doors for Justin.'”

Jerry Rosburg, retired Ravens special-teams coordinator: “Like I do every year, I gleaned through all of the kicking possibilities. I’m going to go through the stats in the NCAA, and I’m going to find every draft-eligible kicker that has decent numbers. Justin Tucker had that, and I put the tape on. His talent jumped off the tape at me.”

Roche: “Jerry called and said, ‘We’re interested in him. I’m going to work him out, but I don’t want you to say anything to anybody. We’ll let you know when we’re going to work him out.’ I didn’t say a word [to any other team] because I knew the Ravens were a great spot for Justin to be able to compete for a job. Chicago and Dallas both worked out Justin. Chicago wanted him to be a punter. Dallas thought he could be a good combo guy [kicker and punter] for camp.”

Justin Tucker: “Coach Rosburg waited until two days before the draft to come to Austin to work me out. I think he probably had a good idea that they wanted to bring me in. They didn’t want to tip their hand and have somebody else get excited that, ‘Oh, Coach Rosburg, who we respect, is working this kid out. We need to take another look at him.’ So, he waited until nobody could work me out, which, looking back, is really smart.”

The workout

Rosburg: “It was one of my favorite days in football, it turns out. I went down to Austin. We met for breakfast early in a nice, little, Tex-Mex place just off campus. He explained to me how he got into the fine arts and the music. All of that, the package was really interesting to me. I saw him as a performer. That kick he made against Texas A&M [a 40-yarder as time expired in a 27-25 win on Thanksgiving 2011] was a huge game and a huge win. There’s an essence there. He loved that moment.”

Justin Tucker: “We talked about general football and life stuff. I probably spilled the beans too much by referencing my burgeoning career as a rap artist over migas and Kerbey Lane Cafe queso. I’d been making beats and performing at a couple of functions here and there. At the end of the day, it didn’t totally scare him away. So that’s good.”

Rosburg: “The workout was fabulous. I pretty much put all my eggs in that basket, real honestly. Without going through the list of kickers that were available that year, I had Justin at the top. He had no other interest. What the other people see, let them see. I’m going to believe in what I see. I think it was Napoleon who said, ‘If your opponents are making mistakes, don’t interrupt them.’ So I was pretty confident that we were in a pretty good place with Justin. The workout reinforced what I already believed in him: He was a talented guy who I thought we could help become an NFL kicker.”

Paul Tucker: “I think Justin really thought he would be picked. It wasn’t a big draft party. It was me, Justin, his mother and Joe Taylor, who does the play-by-play for Westlake [High School] football. We were eating tacos at a Tex-Mex place here. Justin hadn’t been picked, so he was disappointed. Right then, he got a call and went around the corner. Joe Taylor was talking to someone on the phone and goes, ‘I think it’s down to the Cowboys or the Ravens. I think it’s going to be the Cowboys.'”

Rosburg: “I was on the phone when the last pick was being made. So, as soon as the pick is in, we can make the deal.”

Justin Tucker: “Coach Rosburg basically asked me what I was thinking. I told him, ‘I want to come to Baltimore.’”

Turning down a rival

Rosburg: “He had an outstanding rookie minicamp [in May 2012]. It was exactly what I hoped it to be. If you’re at that practice and know anything about kicking, you’re saying, ‘This guy can kick.’ We had every intention of signing him. It didn’t get done when he came.”

Justin Tucker: “I was basically at the mercy of the docs to fully clear me going forward [the Ravens’ medical staff initially failed Tucker on his physical because of a back issue]. I thought it was going to be a couple of days. It ended up being a couple of weeks.”

Rosburg: “It was a very nervous two weeks.”

Justin Tucker: “In the meantime, I got a couple of phone calls from other teams because they heard I had done pretty well at Ravens rookie minicamp. The one team that called with something substantive was the Pittsburgh Steelers. They wanted to bring me in for a workout with the intention of signing me and having me compete. They wanted to book me on a flight. I don’t know why, I told the guy on the phone, ‘I appreciate the offer to come up and work out, but I am currently waiting on another opportunity. Can you give me a little bit of time and I will certainly call you back to let you know?’ He said, ‘You have 48 hours.’ So, 48 hours go by, and I don’t hear anything from anybody. I’m thinking I totally ended my own NFL career before it even got started.”

John Harbaugh, Ravens coach: “I’m not throwing our doctors under the bus, because they know it’s true. They failed his physical at first because he had a little back issue. It’s like, he’s a kicker. He’s just been kicking four years for Texas with whatever he’s got. We’re going to fail him on the physical? I put on my doctor’s hat and overruled the doctors. I think it turned out pretty well.”

Near-miraculous change

Randy Brown, Ravens assistant special-teams coach: “It wasn’t until that first day of training camp when I physically laid eyes on Justin Tucker. My first impression was he’s a young David Akers. The reason I say that: A young David Akers kicked the ball a mile but had no idea where the ball was going.”

Justin Tucker: “On the second day of training camp, they sat me down in Jerry’s office for 2½ hours and explained to me while watching film of the previous day: You can play in the league doing that, but you’re not going to play very long. Any other specialist that I had ever been around, you get a little bit stubborn with your technique. That’s your own piece of art, and you don’t want others critiquing it. I was at that pivotal point where I had to consciously decide: Am I going to be stubborn, or am I going to be coachable and listen to someone who knows better than I do?”

Brown: “When you take your three steps back and two steps over [to line up for a kick], always start in the same spot. He wasn’t always starting in the same spot. Then, approach the ball from the same angle. Third, the plant. When you have a guy who is a home run-hitter like him, and he swings from his shoes, you have to have him plant from the same spot each time. That was the key.”

Rosburg: “That, to me, was one of the most incredible things about the whole story, is how quickly he was able to pick up on what was brought to him. You can imagine changing a golf swing in the middle of the U.S. Open qualifier. That’s what happened.”

Brown: “It’s beyond unusual. It’s close to miraculous. That next day — and I remember that day like it was yesterday — after a few warm-up balls, we got to the same spot and the same plant. He didn’t miss a kick that day. I knew right then and there that we have somebody special.”

Winning the job

The challenge for Tucker, an undrafted rookie, was to beat out Cundiff, who was a Pro Bowl kicker two years earlier and was still considered the favorite to remain the Ravens’ kicker.

Roche: “In talking with Justin during camp, he was competing. He was really competing. When they had a competition in field goals, he would actually move the ball 5 yards back and make it. It was a challenge to Billy.”

Rosburg: “We had a moment leading up to the third preseason game. I took the two guys inside [the field house], and we had a kickoff competition. Billy was phenomenal, if you remember. He was great at kickoffs. Justin won that competition, hands down. We gave Justin the entire third preseason game.”

Roche: “I was at the game and thought this was going to be a good opportunity for Justin to really show what he could do and possibly win the job. He hit a 53-yard field goal in that game. I said, ‘This should be interesting.'”

Rosburg: “My mom was in ill health at the time, and she suffered from Alzheimer’s. It had been a long, painful journey. After that game, I got in an airplane and flew back to Minnesota to be with my mom. John asked me before I left, ‘Is this our guy?’ I said, ‘Yes, this is our kicker.’ When I was gone, that’s when the decision was made. It’s amazing how these things work. When I think of Justin, I still think of my mother. I missed her by 20 minutes. She passed away 20 minutes before I got there.”

Harbaugh: “I remember going around the table of the coaches and asking every coach who they thought should be the kicker: Billy or the new kid. It was pretty much Billy. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was pretty solidly toward Billy. Then, I said, ‘There’s really only one vote that counts anyway, so Tucker is going to be the kicker.'”

Justin Tucker: “The food [at the Ravens’ facility] is great. But I needed a little changeup and [to] reward myself. I hadn’t made any money. I didn’t have a signing bonus. However, because I knew I was going to at least get a chance to play in one regular-season NFL game, I knew I had a couple of bucks going my way. I went to Chipotle, and I got the same burrito I always get, but I got chips and guac. I didn’t even blink ,and I didn’t even think twice about spending the extra $3 for the chips or guac.”

Rosburg: “He’s been a blessing to my life. I love him. Justin made a comment: His life wouldn’t be the same without me finding him. I feel the same way about Justin. My life wouldn’t be the same without Justin.”

Harbaugh: “I think he’s the best in the history of the game.”

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Saints rule out starting LBs A.J Klein (knee), Kiko Alonso (thigh) vs. 49ers

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METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints have ruled out two of their starting linebackers before Sunday’s critical NFC showdown vs. the San Francisco 49ers.

Strongside linebacker A.J Klein (knee) and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso (thigh) were both injured during last Thursday’s win at Atlanta. The timing is especially unfortunate because the 49ers have the NFL’s No. 2-ranked rushing offense at 148.0 yards per game.

And because both teams are 10-2, Sunday’s game could wind up determining the NFC’s top seed and home-field advantage.

The Saints’ run defense, meanwhile, ranks No. 3 in the league, allowing just 88.6 yards per game. They will likely count on veteran backup Craig Robertson as one replacement starter. Backups Stephone Anthony and newly signed Manti Te’o could also help fill the void.

On a positive injury note, the Saints’ standout left tackle Terron Armstead is listed as questionable after he returned to practice on a limited basis all week with his ankle injury. Even if he is not ready to return yet Sunday, it’s a good sign that he will be back soon.

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Giants expect Golden Tate, Evan Engram to face Eagles

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants wide receiver Golden Tate was cleared from the concussion protocol and will play Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Tate, who is second on the Giants with four receiving touchdowns, missed last week’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. He is set to play his first game with quarterback Eli Manning after missing the first four weeks of the season for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Manning is expected to return to the starting lineup for the first time since Week 2 in place of an injured Daniel Jones, who has a high ankle sprain.

Manning should have a full complement of weapons at his disposal. Tight end Evan Engram is also expected to return after missing three games with a foot injury.

It would mark the first time this season that all the Giants’ pass-catching weapons (Tate, Engram, running back Saquon Barkley and wide receiver Sterling Shepard) are on the field together. The Giants (2-10) are trying to snap an eight-game skid.

Tate returns just in time to face his former team. He was traded from the Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles midway through last season. He signed with the Giants this offseason as a free agent after catching the game-winning touchdown in a playoff win for the Eagles earlier this year.

The veteran receiver has been productive in his seven games with the Giants. Tate has 36 catches for 450 yards and four touchdowns.

But he was injured late in a loss to the Chicago Bears. He was diagnosed with a concussion the day after that game, in which he took several big hits. The Giants say the concussion occurred when his head slammed into the ground while making a touchdown grab late in the fourth quarter. He remained in the game for the final drive.

Engram leads the Giants with 44 receptions. He also has 467 yards and three touchdown grabs in eight games.

But Engram hasn’t played since hurting his foot late in a Week 9 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He recently said it was a two-to-four week injury.

Engram has missed three games and had the bye week to recover. He’s been a limited participant in practice this week, but told ESPN he’s done way more than the past few weeks.

“All indications are he’ll be ready to go,” coach Pat Shurmur said earlier Friday.

The same can’t be said for Jones. He didn’t practice Friday even though he ditched the walking boot on his right foot. He spent most of his time on the sideline working with a trainer. Shurmur considered it “very unlikely” the rookie quarterback would play despite all the Giants’ weapons finally being together.

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Colts to be without Adam Vinatieri, T.Y. Hilton vs. Bucs

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INDIANAPOLIS — Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri has been ruled out for Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay because of a left knee injury, coach Frank Reich said Friday.

Vinatieri, who said he started feeling pain in his knee last week, did not practice Thursday or Friday after being a limited participant Wednesday. It will be the first game he has missed due to injury since 2009.

Reich said they have not talked about putting Vinatieri on the season-ending injured reserve list, instead classifying the kicker as being “week to week” with four games left in the regular season.

Vinatieri, 46, dealt with a similar knee problem during training camp.

He has made a career-low 68% of his field goal attempts this season and missed 14 kicks — eight field goals and six extra points. Two of Vinatieri’s misses — against the Chargers and Steelers — cost the Colts games.

Chase McLaughlin, who the Colts claimed off waivers Wednesday, will handle the kicking duties. McLaughlin has played in seven games this season, four with the Chargers and three with the San Francisco 49ers. He was 13-for-17 on field goals and made all 15 of his extra point attempts.

The Colts, who are on a two-game losing streak, also ruled out receiver T.Y. Hilton (calf) and cornerback Kenny Moore (ankle) for Sunday’s game.

The Colts will get some help on offense, as running back Marlon Mack (hand), who has rushed for a team-high 862 yards, and rookie receiver Parris Campbell (hand) are expected to return, barring any setback after missing two and four games, respectively.

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