Indianapolis — The night his 2019 season ended, Matthew Judon wasn’t sure what his future held. The Ravens could retain their homegrown pass rusher with the franchise tag or sign him to a long-term extension, or else he’d hit free agency. Either way, Judon was a Pro Bowl outside linebacker. He knew he was going to make tens of millions of dollars somewhere before September.
Six weeks after a stunning Jan. 11 divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens still have not made clear their intent with the franchise’s top pending free agent. After a news conference Tuesday in Indianapolis, general manager Eric DeCosta told Baltimore reporters that the team is “trying to get a long-term deal done with Matt, if we can.” But he declined to say how committed the front office is to retaining Judon for at least next season, when the Ravens are expected to be among the NFL’s best teams.
There will be an answer before long. The 15-day window to designate unrestricted free agents with the franchise or transition tag opens Thursday. If Judon’s designated with the franchise tag — kicker Justin Tucker was the team’s last star to be tagged, in 2016 — the Ravens’ tender will be worth between an estimated $16 million and $18 million.
Just weeks from the start of free agency, with the league’s NFL salary cap projected to reach about $200 million this offseason, the Ravens have about $30 million in space. The team is well positioned to repeat as AFC North champion, but an investment in Judon will limit its ability to invest in other positions of need.
“Tremendous respect for Matt, his year that he had this year, his leadership, his production, his effort, what he brings to the team,” DeCosta said at the NFL scouting combine, where he made his first comments since April’s draft.
“We've had good conversations with his agents. They're ongoing, and we'll continue to see how far that progresses, and as far as the franchise tag goes, that's definitely something that's in consideration, that's still on the table. We have some time to go before we make that decision. We'll have to see how it all kind of transpires over the next few weeks."
Judon, 27, is coming off a breakthrough season in Baltimore. While not a great run defender, he led the Ravens with a career-high 9½ sacks and finished fourth in the NFL in quarterback hits on just 439 pass-rush snaps in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, among the fewest of any Pro Bowl edge rusher last year.
Judon’s production wasn’t premised solely on defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s blitz-happy schemes, either. According to ESPN, Judon beat his block within 2.5 seconds on 20% of plays last season, the No. 18 rate in the NFL. (He was among the league leaders for much of the season’s first three months.) A review of his 2019 film also found that more than half of Judon’s quarterback hits came after successful pass-rush moves.
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There are still questions about what a tag would entail. Under the nonexclusive franchise tag, teams can match any free-agent offer and, if their tagged player signs elsewhere, receive two compensatory first-round draft picks. But DeCosta declined to comment on whether the team might designate Judon as a linebacker, where a tender’s projected worth is about $16 million, or as a defensive end, worth about $18 million.
The Ravens could also explore tagging and trading Judon. The Houston Texans dealt tagged defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who’s considered the top pending free-agent edge rusher, to the Seattle Seahawks before last season for a 2020 third-round pick and a pair of outside linebackers. In April, the Seahawks had traded their own tagged defensive end, Frank Clark, to the Kansas City Chiefs for a 2019 first-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick and a swap of 2019 third-round picks.
“Teams have done it in the last couple of years pretty effectively, so it's like anything else,” DeCosta said. “There's always going to be a strategy in place. Teams will usually have a way of doing it if you want to do it, so we haven't given much thought to that at this time.”
With the number of young pass rushers who have passed through Baltimore, only to strike it rich elsewhere in free agency, the Ravens aren’t in foreign territory. Last season, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith signed a lucrative deal with the Green Bay Packers, then blossomed from a situational pass rusher into one of the NFL’s most dominant defenders.
The Ravens’ needs for 2020, though, are especially acute. Coach John Harbaugh said last month that he wants Judon back “very much.” If he leaves, the defense will have only Tyus Bowser (8½ career sacks) and Jaylon Ferguson (2½ sacks as a rookie) returning at outside linebacker. With three picks in the first three rounds, DeCosta can add possible instant-impact help through the draft, though no one at the level of Ohio State’s Chase Young.
In many ways, then, the Ravens are where they were last month — still doing their homework, still making calls, still figuring out a future with Judon and one without. In one of his more candid acknowledgements Tuesday, DeCosta said that “we probably wish we had more money to spend. We don't.” Judon’s at the top of the Ravens’ to-do list, but at what cost?
“We’ve got to use every mechanism that we can to build the best team we can. There’s a lot of different ways to do that,” DeCosta said. “In the past, we’ve used [the franchise tag] — at times, with success. And if that’s what we have to do, then we’ll probably have to do it. But there’s other options as well on the table, [a] long-term deal being something that we would love to get accomplished. So we’ll have to see how it all kind of works out.”