Attempting to make an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent is an obviously difficult task, especially when that roster is as loaded as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster.
And when you’re a wide receiver, the job becomes virtually impossible, even with Martavis Bryant suspended for the 2016 season.
For Northern Michigan wideout Marcus Tucker, the situation is a new one, as the two-time Wildcat captain is used to being the model others look up to in the locker room and on the field. Here, the D-II product will be forced to accept a new role while fighting for his NFL survival among one of the more impressive position groups in the league.
“I’m more of a lead-by-example kind of guy,” said Tucker. “I don’t say much, especially now because I don’t know much, but what I do know is dedication and hard work. I’m just pushing myself each day to get better and learn, and when I get out there, display what I can do.”
Instead of being the mentor, the time has come for Tucker to accept the role of student again. The receiver is clearly grateful for the opportunity, especially given his chance to learn from a player to whom his playing style has been compared in Antonio Brown.
Both players hail from Michigan schools and are almost the exact size and build, while possessing an instinctive penchant for getting open.
Tucker isn’t the athlete or technician that Brown is, of course, but the stylistic similarities are uncanny, making the Steelers' star receiver a player the rookie strives to imitate on the field.
“He’s definitely somebody I look up to as far as the game goes,” Tucker said. “This guy is one of the most hard-working players I’ve ever seen in my life. He's just a humble guy, and ultimately he goes out there and has fun. That’s the most important thing: He works hard and he has fun with the game. When you’re doing those things it makes things easier and makes guys around you want to be better.”
They say true humility is staying teachable, regardless of how much you already know. For Tucker that’s proving to be true, as the high-IQ receiver has sought out the help of older veterans in order to master the Steelers’ offensive system. Tucker mentioned quarterback Bruce Gradkowski as being particularly helpful, even offering further insight on plays or routes after practice and in the locker room.
“Every single one of the quarterbacks and all of the older guys in the wide receiver room, they all help us tremendously,” Tucker said. “Me, Demarcus Ayers, Canaan Severin, I mean, we’ve got a bundle of young guys that are just looking to learn and be able to show what we can do once we know what we’re doing out there.”
From a scouting perspective, Tucker might be comparable to a poor man’s version of the Miami Dolphins’ Jarvis Landry, without the big-play ability after the catch. Tucker’s an underneath receiver who uses smarts and quickness to work free for chain-moving receptions, but will rarely threaten teams down the field or in jump-ball situations. The Steelers will take a long look at Tucker in the slot during training camp and preseason action, as the 5-10, 190-pounder appears to have the skillset to be more of a weapon inside.
“I feel comfortable in the slot or outside,” he said. “I played slot and outside in college, and I was really utilized a lot to get one-on-one matchups and things of that nature, so I played backside (weakside) a lot, like how I play X here sometimes.”
Football hasn’t always been Tucker’s primary sport. His college career actually began at Lake Michigan College, where he hoped to make his mark on the hardcourt as a point guard. Tucker left for Mott Community college after one year, before moving on to Northern Michigan in 2013.
It didn’t take long for Tucker to make an impact there as the first-year receiver led NMU in receiving yards with 674. The offensive production continued the next two seasons, but Tucker also became a very effective kick returner, averaging 26.3 and 25.1 yards per in his final two seasons as a Wildcat. That experience on special teams is now crucial, as Tucker seeks to prove himself in any capacity in order to earn a spot with the Steelers.
“Special teams is going to be huge for me for sure as an undrafted rookie free agent,” he said. “Finding a spot on special teams whether it be a gunner on punt, or kickoff return, or punt return, or a jammer on punt, or running down on kickoffs, blocking -- just anything I can do to show why I need to stay here and why I can help this team become a champion.”