The Ravens have a franchise tag decision to make. Matthew Judon’s already shown his true value.

No team knows Matthew Judon better than the Ravens. They drafted him in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL draft, a little-known pass rusher out of Division II Grand Valley State. They played him more than any front-seven defender on their roster from 2017 to 2019. They watched him develop into a Pro Bowl outside linebacker and team leader.

Now, with the 15-day window for designating pending free agents with a franchise or transition tag set to open Tuesday, they’ll have to decide whether Judon is worth keeping.


He won’t come cheap. Under the nonexclusive franchise tag, which allows teams to match any offer and, if their player signs elsewhere, receive two compensatory first-round draft picks, Judon would receive a one-year tender offer of about $16 million. (If he’s designated as a defensive end, the tender’s projected to be worth about $18 million.)

Under the transition tag, which gives teams the right to match an offer sheet but awards no compensation if their player signs with another team, Judon would be owed slightly less: an estimated $14 million as a linebacker, or $15 million as a defensive end.


There might not be a more divisive offseason topic in Baltimore than Judon’s worth. In some ways, his contract status represents an inversion of the team’s handling of last year’s premier free agent. Unlike former Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, a four-time All-Pro selection who was more proven but ultimately not tagged, Judon is reportedly likely to be tagged if a long-term deal cannot be reached.

Among Ravens fans, the 27-year-old has become a Rorschach test for how they see the defense and the team’s Super Bowl window: His production is irreplaceable ... or a byproduct of the system he’s in. He should be a defensive cornerstone ... or cleared out for a successor. He deserves a long-term deal, or maybe just a franchise tag, or perhaps nothing extravagant at all.

At his season-ending news conference last month, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked how much he wants Judon back and how hard re-signing him might be. “Very much and pretty hard,” he said, laughing, “but we’re going to try.” If the franchise tag is their best chance, it won’t be a risk-free retention. But the pros outweigh the cons.

Pro: Tagging Judon doesn’t mean the Ravens have to keep him.

With every tag, there’s wiggle room on both sides. Tagged players don’t have to sign their one-year tender. (Just ask Le’Veon Bell.) And teams aren’t bound to their tagged player or his salary cap hit.

If Judon’s tagged, the Ravens could try to trade him for picks and players. When defensive end Jadeveon Clowney refused to sign the Texans’ franchise tag last summer, Houston traded him to the Seattle Seahawks for a 2020 third-round pick and outside linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin. (To seal the deal, the Texans also agreed to pay Clowney a $7 million signing bonus, leaving the remaining $8 million of his salary to Seattle.)

Earlier that offseason, the Seahawks had traded their own franchise-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. Rather than make $17.1 million under the tag in Seattle, Clark signed a five-year, $105.5 million deal in Kansas City, with $62.3 million guaranteed.

Judon would likely fetch less than both in a trade. Clowney was younger and considered a more well-rounded edge rusher when he was tagged last year, while Clark had posted 32 sacks in just 33 starts since 2016 for Seattle.

Con: It will get only harder to find an upper-tier pass rusher.

The longer the Ravens wait to give Judon or another coveted free-agent pass rusher a multiyear contract, the bigger the bill will be.

The league’s salary cap has grown by over $10 million every year since 2013, and the next collective bargaining agreement could dramatically reshape how teams spend on top players. The Chiefs, for instance, are expected to wait until after the new CBA is finalized, likely in the next 12 to 15 months, before signing quarterback Patrick Mahomes to a contract extension.

There are only so many high-quality edge rushers, and with quarterback Lamar Jackson expected to keep the Ravens in playoff contention for the foreseeable future, the draft becomes a less viable resource for blue-chip prospects. Of the NFL’s sack leaders since 2017, eight of the top 11 were selected in the first round, and just one after the No. 50 overall pick. Judon (24½ sacks) is the only fifth-round pick among the top 35.

With Jackson’s own megadeal on the horizon — players are eligible for contract extensions after their third season — the Ravens have every incentive to retain talented players at deals that become progressively more economical. And with CBA rules compelling them to spend over $50 million in cash this year, they’ve got to give someone a big contract.

Pro: The Ravens’ system and secondary don’t account for Judon’s success.

The Ravens blitzed more than any defense in the NFL last season, sending five or more pass rushers on 54.9% of their plays, according to Pro-Football-Reference. They had maybe the NFL’s best secondary, with three All-Pro selections in cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters and safety Earl Thomas III.


Both attributes have been used to discredit Judon’s 2019. Because the Ravens brought so much pressure under coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, the thinking goes, Judon had more one-on-one pass-rush opportunities. And because of the team’s airtight secondary, quarterbacks surely held the ball for longer on pass plays, right?

The stats and film tell a different story. According to ESPN, Judon beat his block within 2.5 seconds on 20% of plays last season, the 18th-best such rate in the NFL. (Judon ranked in the top 10 for much of the season before fading in December, perhaps in part because of a workload that included a career-high eight games of 50-plus defensive snaps.)


As expected, he had company on his most effective pass rushes. A review of 2019 film found that the Ravens brought an average of 5.1 pass rushers on plays in which Judon registered a quarterback hit. During outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith’s 2018 Ravens season, it was 4.8 pass rushers. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Shaquill Barrett, the NFL’s sack leader, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Bud Dupree, another franchise tag candidate, were among 4.5 and 4.0 pass rushers, respectively, per quarterback hit.


But the Ravens’ pressure rate should not diminish Judon’s accomplishments. He finished fourth in the NFL in quarterback hits (sacks included) on just 439 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, among the fewest of any Pro Bowl edge rusher last season. And when he pressured the quarterback, it was more often because he’d defeated a block than because he was in the right place at the right time.

Of his 33 hits, 17 came after successful pass-rush moves, typically an outside rush against an offensive tackle or tight end. On 11 hits, he was unblocked, though five of those appeared intentional, as they came on play-action and bootleg designs. His last five hits came on cleanup duty, in which he pursued the quarterback on broken plays.

Those rates compare favorably with his peers’. While Barrett racked up 26 of his 37 hits on pass-rush moves, Smith was 14-for-24 in his final Ravens season, and Dupree had just eight of 17 last year.

Added time didn’t appear to be a significant factor, either. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, in the Ravens’ 15 games against qualifying passers, just eight quarterbacks took longer to throw, on average, than their season-ending mark. The Ravens’ talented pass defense didn’t typically give Judon more time to collapse the pocket; it just forced quarterbacks to throw into tighter windows.

Con: There are still some red flags in his production.

Judon would not be such a polarizing franchise tag possibility if the Ravens’ apparent weaknesses weren’t so pronounced. He was the best pass rusher on a not-great pass-rushing team. How valuable could he really be?

Opinions vary. While Judon fared well in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate, his “win rate” at PFF was mediocre, ranking just 51st among edge rushers, and the site said he struggled in one-on-one scenarios.

In other areas of his game, he left room for improvement. Most notably, Judon graded out poorly in PFF’s run-defense grades. His 14.3% missed-tackle rate was the highest of any regular contributor to the Ravens’ front seven, according to Pro-Football-Reference, and his failure to drop Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry behind the line of scrimmage helped spring a game-changing 66-yard run in the third quarter of the Ravens’ playoff loss.

Elsewhere, a year after ranking among PFF’s highest-graded edge rushers in coverage, Judon allowed almost twice as many yards per target (7.1), though it was a rather small sample size (just 11 targets overall).

Pro: Judon has improved every year, and he’d benefit from more help.

For all the concerns there might be about Judon’s age (he turns 28 in October, old for a fifth-year player) and college injury history (he tore his ACL and meniscus in 2013 and had a small meniscus issue that kept him out of a draft showcase game in 2016), he has produced and improved every year in Baltimore.

“He’s a Swiss Army knife for us,” Martindale said before last season. “When you talk about [defensive back Brandon Carr] and what he is to the secondary, that’s kind of like what Matt is to the front seven. Matt is one of our smartest players.”

After a four-sack rookie campaign, Judon posted eight, 7½ and 9½ sacks over the next three seasons. His number of quarterback hits improved every year, from 10 in 2016 to 33 in 2019. His last season was the highest graded of his career, according to PFF.

Statistically, his play has landed him in good company. Only Judon, Clowney, Smith, Carlos Dunlap, Chris Jones, Leonard Williams, J.J. Watt, Demarcus Lawrence and Trey Flowers have ranked among the top 25 in quarterback knockdowns each of the past two seasons. Over the past three years, Judon ranks 26th in total sacks (24½). According to PFF, his pressure rate since 2017 is higher than Clowney’s.

And while keeping Judon would require a significant financial commitment, the addition of other pass-rush threats, especially inside, could be a force multiplier for Martindale. According to ESPN, Judon finished tied for eighth in the NFL with 12 “sacks created,” credited to the player with the first pass-rush win on a sack rather than the player who finished the play.

Most of the names above him are not only more established pass rushers but also the beneficiaries of deeper talent pools. In Green Bay, Smith (20 sacks created) has Preston Smith as a running mate. The Buccaneers’ Barrett (17 sacks created) lines up with Vita Vea creating havoc inside. Cameron Jordan (17 sacks created) pairs with Saints teammate Marcus Davenport.

Last season, the Ravens had Judon and not much else. In Baltimore, there’s hope that a more seasoned Jaylon Ferguson can emerge. Fellow outside linebacker Tyus Bowser took a step forward in his third year. But if the Ravens let Judon get away — and get nothing in return — their pass rush will have even more questions than answers. Given their 2020 aspirations, that’s not something they can afford.


NFL key dates

Monday-March 2: NFL scouting combine, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.

Tuesday: First day for clubs to designate franchise or transition players.

March 10: Before 4 p.m., deadline for clubs to designate franchise or transition players.

March 16-18: Clubs are permitted to contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents.

March 29-April 1: Annual league meeting, Palm Beach, Florida.

April 23-25: NFL draft, Las Vegas.

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