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Preston: One way or another, the Ravens need to keep Matthew Judon | COMMENTARY

Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon downplayed becoming a free agent all season, but he knew that if he produced in 2019, he would become one of the NFL’s highest-paid pass rushers in 2020.

Judon, 27, responded with the best season of his career, recording a team-leading 9½ sacks and making the Pro Bowl for the first time, and the payday is closing in. One way or another, the team’s fifth-round draft pick out of Grand Valley State in 2016 is about to get paid.

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If the Ravens are smart, they’ll give Judon the franchise tag, which is projected to be worth about $16 million for outside linebackers. If he leaves in free agency, all the Ravens would likely get is a compensatory third-round pick for the 2021 draft.

The Ravens could still sign Judon to a long-term deal, similar to the four-year, $66 million contract that former Ravens outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith signed last March with the Green Bay Packers.

Regardless of the great season Smith had in 2018, he wasn’t worth that much money, and neither is Judon. But the franchise tag would allow the Ravens to at least keep Judon for another season or possibly trade him for draft picks or other players.

The Ravens need a pass rusher.

Judon isn’t in the top class of the NFL, but he does have 28½ sacks in four seasons with the Ravens. A lot of his sacks last year were the result of blitzes and stunts as part of the team’s defensive scheme. But even though he didn’t win a lot of one-on-one matchups, Judon was a steady and consistent performer.

He also became a leader on a defense, which finished third in the league in points allowed per game (17.6) and fourth in total yards allowed per game (300.6).

Some teams will offer Judon big money on the free-agent market because they saw what the San Francisco 49ers’ Dee Ford and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Frank Clark did for their new teams last season. There is a lot of money and hope out there.

If the Ravens can’t work out a reasonable long-term deal with Judon, they should put the franchise tag on him. With the No. 28 overall pick in April’s NFL draft, it’s unlikely one of college football’s top pass rushers will be available when the Ravens make their first-round selection, so they might as well keep Judon as insurance.

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And once the franchise tag is applied, they could always trade him, and would certainly get more than a third-round pick in return. At this time, it seems more logical to pay Judon around $16 million for one year than sign him to the type of long-term deal Smith received from Green Bay.

Going into this offseason, the Ravens’ needs are glaring. On offense, they yet again need to find a big, fast outside receiver. And a guard or center would help, too.

The Ravens’ biggest holes are on defense, particularly in the front seven. They need a big, physical middle linebacker and a defensive end. They also need to get a pass rusher or two, and keeping Judon would at least give them some options.

The Ravens were fortunate a year ago. They had the best offense in the NFL, averaging 33.2 points per game. They controlled the time of possession with their running game and forced teams to play catch-up, which made the Ravens’ pass rush more effective.

But when it didn’t work out that way against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, the Ravens’ weaknesses were exposed. Even with Judon, they couldn’t mount a consistent pass rush without a lot of blitzes.

It would get worse if he is allowed to hit the open market.

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