One offseason talking point in Baltimore centered around Matt Judon and whether or not the franchise tagged pass rusher and the team would come to an agreement on a long term deal to keep him in town. But as the deadline for tagged players to sign deals approached, hope for an extension dwindled. The two sides could not agree on a deal, and the 28 year-old Pro-Bowler will play the 2020 season on the franchise tag.
The feeling from Ravens fans on the issue seemed to be a mixed bag. Some were upset an extension wasn’t signed, but others were skeptical if Judon would have lived up to a contract that would have been near the top of the NFL at his position. I am of the latter, and while I hate to say a great player should not be re-signed, it is, in my opinion, key for future success that he is not. Here are four reasons why Ravens fans should not panic that an extension wasn’t reached, and why the team should consider letting Judon walk in 2021.
The front seven is loaded and replaceable
Pass rush is one of the most important positions on the field, and it’s incredibly hard to find an elite one. That being said, Judon may be more replaceable than you thought. Last offseason, the Ravens lost Pro-Bowl linebacker CJ Mosley in free agency and, in his absence, a hole at the position he once roamed was created. The Ravens turned to free agent signings Josh Bynes and LJ Fort to fill the void at inside linebacker, and the two journeymen exceeded expectations, combining for 71 tackles and 15 starts. Fort impressed enough to earn a 2 year, $5.5 million extension during the season, while Bynes signed a $1.6 million deal with Cincinnati.
Who could step up if Judon were to leave, you ask?
“I definitely want to get into the 10-sack club this year”, the young and improving Tyus Bowser said last month.
Bowser, the former second round pick out of Houston, has had a disappointing start to his once promising career, but is coming off his best season yet after finishing second on the team in sacks with 5. Jaylon Ferguson, also a former second round selection, is another player who would benefit from an expanded role. Up front, the Ravens also added Pro-Bowler Calais Campbell via trade, Derek Wolfe via free agency, and Justin Madubuike in the third round of the 2020 draft. Looking back at linebacker, first rounder Patrick Queen and 98th overall pick Malik Harrison will further solidify the front seven.
Za’Darius Smith was another linebacker the Ravens saw leave town last offseason. Coming off an 8.5 sack season, most thought his presence would surely be missed coming off the edge. The impact of the loss proved not to be huge, however. Baltimore’s defense gave up less points and passing yards and forced more turnovers this past season than the year before with Smith and Mosley. Obviously the Earl Thomas and Marcus Peters acquisitions and emergence of Chuck Clark were big, but this goes to show losing an above average pass rusher won’t hurt a defense too much, especially with several other stars.
The art of the compensatory draft pick is an art the Ravens have been historically successful with, tallying 52 total compensatory picks in team history, good for the most of any team since the introduction of the compensatory pick system in 1994. The front office is also historically successful at turning those compensatory selections into high quality, long lasting contributors. The list of players includes punter Sam Koch, offensive lineman Ricky Wagner, Ryan Jensen, and Bradley Bozeman, linebacker Pernell McPhee, and offensive weapons Kyle Juszczyk and Nick Boyle. Just last offseason, the Ravens gained third and fourth round picks for the losses of Mosley and wide receiver John Brown to the Jets and Bills respectively, and would have had two more if not for the Thomas and Mark Ingram acquisitions cancelling out the Smith and Terrell Suggs departures.
If we look at the selection the Ravens received for Mosley’s five year, $85 million deal with New York, I think it’s safe to assume the pick the team would receive for a potential Judon departure would likely be in the same range, giving Eric DeCosta and the front office an extra day two or early day three selection to work with where, ironically enough, Judon himself was drafted.
Salary cap drop
It was announced in July that the NFL and NFLPA agreed to a deal in which the loss of revenue from this season due to COVID-19 will be spread across the salary cap over the next three years, dropping the 2021 cap to $175 million at the lowest, down from $198 million in 2020. This loss of nearly $25 million shouldn’t affect the Ravens too much, as they still project to have just over $16 million in space for 2021. According to spotrac.com, a Judon contract will likely be in the 4 year, $65 million range, roughly $16 million per year and one that would make him one of the league’s highest paid pass rushers. Obviously such a deal would pressure the team’s cap number in 2021.
Big names to keep in mind
The final and most important reason the Ravens could let Judon walk is the fact that the organization has four big names, among others, that will need extensions in the coming years.
Up first is left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent following the 2020 season. Stanley, 26, is coming off his best season as a pro, being selected to his first Pro Bowl and being named a First Team All-Pro. Left tackle is arguably the second most important position on the football field, and locking up one of the best in the game at the position long-term should be a top priority prior in the offseason. Stanley said recently that an extension is “not at the forefront of his mind”, and that his agent is in frequent talks with the team and both sides are hopeful of getting something done.
Next up are cornerback Marlon Humphrey and tight end Mark Andrews, who are scheduled to hit free agency following the 2021 season. Both Humphrey and Andrews, like Stanley, are coming off their best seasons and have solidified themselves among the top of the league at their positions. Both earned Pro Bowl selections in 2019 and Humphrey joined Stanley as a First Team All-Pro member. Andrews, who emerged as his MVP quarterback’s top target, finished tied for second in the NFL and first among tight ends with 10 receiving touchdowns.
Lastly, we have Lamar Jackson. The former first round pick has a 5th year option for 2022, then would become unrestricted after the 2023 season. The 23 year-old league MVP took the NFL by storm in 2019, finishing first in the league in passing touchdowns, breaking the all-time single season rushing yards by a quarterback record, and leading the highest scoring offense to a 14-2 regular season finish. You don’t need me to tell you how important Jackson is to the future success of the organization. You also don’t need me to tell you saving cap space for the inevitable Lamar Jackson extension needs to be kept in mind over the next couple of years.
Having said all of this, I do think highly of Judon. He’s a phenomenal pass rusher, and the Ravens defense is better because of him. He will deserve whatever lucrative contract he signs, whether that’s an extension to remain in Baltimore or to move on with his career elsewhere. If DeCosta and company could manage to get Judon to take a hometown discount, I’d be all in. If not, letting him hit the open market is the best approach to remaining an AFC powerhouse for years to come.