Eric DeCosta and the Ravens front office wasted little time following the end of the 2019 season before they got to work on shaping the future of the team.
The Ravens have become known for making a lot of mid-season moves since DeCosta took over, including a large number of contract extensions to keep talent in house. That has naturally extended into the offseason with Chuck Clark being the latest player to ink a deal before hitting the free agent market.
DeCosta deserves plenty of praise for these extensions but as we all know, it’s not possible to keep every player from testing the free agent market. Keeping guys like Clark, Willie Snead, or Pat Ricard around on team friendly deals is not that difficult but there are plenty of other players currently on the roster who will not be easy to retain or maybe just flat out financially irresponsible to retain.
Going into this offseason the Ravens have a few players that fit that description but none will cause as much debate as Matthew Judon. The 27-year-old defensive end has been a huge part of the Ravens pass rush since being selected in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL draft. Coming from a small school Judon had a lot to prove but he immediately made an impact in a supplementary role as a rookie and quickly transitioned into a regular starter over the past three years.
Judon has racked up 28.5 sacks in his four years as a Raven, 9.5 of which came in 2019. Judon also added four forced fumbles and 33 quarterback hits to make 2019 a career year. What better time to turn in these kind of numbers than now if you’re Judon? He is not the first and certainly won’t be the last Ravens defensive player to ball out in a contract year and make things difficult for the front office the following off season.
The Ravens were faced with one of these decisions just last year when Za’Darius Smith had a breakout campaign in which he notched 8.5 sacks. Baltimore decided to let Smith walk, mostly because they could not compete with the $66 million mega contract offered by Green Bay, but that decision ended up looking a little questionable when Smith went on to have an even better season in 2020 while earning his first pro bowl nod.
Right now Smith is an outlier when it comes to Ravens defenders who have gone on to get bigger contracts elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that Smith could not stay considering he would have helped the 2019 defense a lot but don’t let this recent case turn your attention away from guys like Pernell McPhee, Paul Kruger, and Courtney Upshaw. Those players, among a handful of others, looked like solid pieces you would love to have on your defense but ultimately failed outside of Baltimore.
So that brings us to Judon, who has earned himself the right for a big payday, but the question of whether or not the Ravens will be the ones to give it to him remains. Over the past few months Judon has made it pretty clear he would like to remain a Raven moving forward. This is a good sign and something you love to hear as a fan but it ultimately has little impact on what the team will end up doing.
At the end of the day money is all that matters here and Judon will command a lot of it. What makes the debate surrounding Judon unique is the timing. This is not like the decision the Ravens faced with Smith last year and there are a few reasons why.
Right off the bat we know money is not as tight as it has been in recent seasons. DeCosta has shed a lot of dead weight on the payroll and as a result the Ravens will have the opportunity to be big spenders in the next few years with Lamar Jackson still playing on his rookie contract. To stem off of that, the Ravens also have the opportunity to use the franchise tag on Judon. The money and cap space is there to give Judon a normal long term deal but the franchise tag comes with little risk as it only makes a very temporary dent in your payroll.
There are rumors circulating that the Ravens intend to use the franchise tag on Judon and I think that would be ideal given the scenario they find themselves in. There is a clear lack of depth in terms of a pass rush on this team and losing Judon would only make things worse. Despite that lack of depth the Ravens are still not only Super Bowl contenders, but probably favorites to win it all next year. So why not take a one year hit on a vital piece of your defense as you try to make another deep playoff run? Plus it gives you another year to acquire pass rushers via free agency or the draft without being super desperate.
The franchise tag also comes with the possibility of a trade. It’s not very common but league insiders seem to think Judon would get a lot of attention on the trade market. Last year the Kansas city Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks both raked in huge amounts of draft capital for Dee Ford and Frank Clark. I don’t see Judon garnering as big of a return as those two guys but perhaps a guaranteed second or third rounder would be attractive to the Ravens rather than letting Judon walk and hoping for good compensatory pick to come back.
There are no guarantees when it comes to comp picks so eliminating that risk and getting an instant return would be very valuable. Just look at C.J. Mosley, who left the Ravens in free agency last year to join the New York Jets. A player of Mosley’s caliber should have easily earned the Ravens a third round comp pick but that is up in the air right now due to the groin injury he suffered in 2019. Nothing has been decided yet but projections indicate that the Ravens will only receive a fourth rounder in return for Mosley who played in just two games this past season.
Whether the Ravens work out a trade or not, I like the idea of using the franchise tag on Judon a lot in this case. I’m not as high on keeping other prospective free agents like Michael Pierce, Jimmy Smith, and Patrick Onwuasor so that leaves Judon as the only big free agent I’m entertaining. Giving him the tag would be about a $16 million or $17 million investment but I think it makes a lot of sense given the situation the Ravens currently find themselves in. If a trade can be done that would be even better but no matter what DeCosta ends up doing, finding pass rushers in free agency and/or the draft will still be a top priority.
Image credit: Baltimore Sun