As Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta enters the off-season, he has a number of pressing free agents to tend to. Perhaps none more than outside linebacker and pass rusher Matt Judon. Judon is coming off a career season in which he was selected to his first Pro Bowl and produced at the highest level of his NFL career. Judon racked up career highs games started (16), sacks (9.5), forced fumbles (four), and quarterback hits (33) — leading this team in each category.
DeCosta has already put his stamp on the Ravens one year into his tenure. He has locked down a number on key contributors but perhaps more notably, has let multiple high profile players hit the open market. However, Judon currently falls somewhere in the middle. The Ravens pass rush and linebacking corps are easily the team’s weakest units and Judon has played a large role for both over the past three seasons. This leaves the Ravens general manager with a big decision to make over the next month.
Coming off his most successful year as a pro, DeCosta and the Ravens have multiple options of what to do with Judon as he is set to free agency.
Each Option the Baltimore Ravens Have With Matt Judon
A) Extend Him Long-Term – Probability: Unlikely
Considering the money Judon is set to demand on the open market, this option seems fairly unlikely for the Ravens. Ozzie Newsome was known for letting notable contributors leave as to avoid overspending on players coming out of their rookie contracts. DeCosta has also already shown that he plans to keep this philosophy going with his teams. Last off-season, both Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith we’re let go coming off of very similar seasons and while Smith had his most successful season this past season with the Green Bay Packers, the trend is likely to repeat again in 2020.
Judon has played just four seasons in the NFL so it’s easy to forget he’s already 28 years old. Over those four years, he’s topped 7.0 sacks three straight seasons but is yet to eclipse the double-digit mark. This signals that he’s likely already playing close to his ceiling with only a handful of good years left.
If Judon were to sign a contract upwards of four years with the Ravens, it could go one of two ways. One: he returns, improves his play and stays the best player off the edge for Baltimore. Two, and the more likely scenario: he plays well but not well enough to fill the Ravens need for an improved pass rush. DeCosta is now limited in his options for how to upgrade it with Judon’s inflated cap hit. There’s a good chance Judon has a number of good years in front of him but the risk of getting that on a consistent basis may be too high for the contract he will demand.
B) Franchise Tag For One Season – Probability: Very Unlikely
While the Ravens haven’t used the franchise tag player on a player since the 2016 season when they used it to secure Justin Tucker, Judon seems like a likely recipient in 2020. After some likely cuts, Baltimore is projected to have around $40 million in cap room. If Judon were to sign the franchise tag, it would likely pay him somewhere slightly upwards of $16 million. This number would likely be fine for both parties but it could be problematic for Judon going into the future.
At Judon’s age, he is already looked at as one of the older top-tier free agents and adding another year of NFL action could drastically change his value. At 28, he is already supposedly playing in his prime years and teams would like to soak up as much of that as they can, especially if they’re paying top dollar. If Judon were to return to the Ravens and have a drop in production, significant or not, or get hurt, it would heavily hurt his value as a free agent in 2021. Therefore, it is likely in Judon’s best interest to seek his highest and most significant payday this offseason.
Retaining Judon for another year would be a good option for the Ravens going into 2020 as he’d be a good piece of a pass rush that still needs to dramatically improve. However, Judon could likely get close to the same payday on the open market with a new team. This is probably the least likely option that the two parties could agree to.
C) Tag and Trade – Probability: Very Likely
A tag and trade for Judon is probably the likely option this off-season. It would allow the Ravens to seek a trade to bring back assets for a very good player and for Judon to receive the deal he believes he deserves after a very successful 2019 season. Sportac projects Judon to have a value close to his former teammate, Za’Darius Smith, of roughly $16.3 million. Coming off of a year where he topped Smith’s 2018 totals in tackles, sacks, and quarterback hits could mean Judon’s value could even exceed Smith’s AAV of $16.5 million. The biggest difference is Smith was two years younger (26) when he signed his new deal.
This year’s free-agent class is fairly top-heavy with edge defenders. Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue and the 2019 leading sack artist Shaquil Barrett headline the group. This doesn’t mean Judon’s value will suffer any hit but it should force the Ravens to act somewhat quickly.
To get an approximation for what a trade for Judon would look like, it’s fair to use both Dee Ford‘s and Frank Clark‘s trades from the last off-season as precedent. After recording 13.0 sacks, 29 quarterback hits, and seven forced fumbles at age 27, Ford was moved for a second-round pick to his current team, the San Francisco 49ers. Clark was shipped closer to draft time to the Kansas City Cheifs for a late first-rounder and a second the following season. At the time of the trade, he was 25 years old. Judon would command a deal closer to Ford’s because of his age.
A deal for Judon would likely involve a second-rounder coming back the Ravens’ way as well as a potential upgrade on a day-three pick.
D) Let Him Walk For Nothing – Probability: Unlikely
While this may seem like an unlikely option, there have been names similar to Judon that have walked in the past. Smith was just the latest in a line of Ravens pass rushers to hit the open market after the expiration of their rookie contracts. Other Ravens’ examples included Paul Kruger and Pernell McPhee.
The difference between these players at the time of their dismissals and Judon’s is the placeholders behind them. Suggs was a staple in the Ravens pass rush during Kruger and McPhees (first) tenure and Judon was already a prominent member of the unit during Smith’s breakout year. If Judon was to depart in free agency and the Ravens exclusively added pass rushers through the draft, it would leave a lot of questions going into 2020. Rookie Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser have only logged 15 games combined with over 50% of defensive snaps played. Ravens’ pass rushers have a habit of popping in their fourth year but leaving Bowser as the most senior member of the edge defenders seems very unlikely.
The only way the Ravens will let Judon walk for nothing will be if DeCosta is planning to add another significant piece on the edge in free agency.