With all due respect to Michael Pierce and Jimmy Smith (and I truly mean that, this isn’t one of those “with all due respect” deals where we say it because we’re just kinda supposed to, I genuinely believe both players are potentially critical pieces wherever they might be next season), the Ravens’ offseason seems to be centered around the future of pass rusher Matthew Judon.
It’s not that complicated. It’s extremely complicated.
The facts? Judon, 27, had a very good 2019 season (highlighted by a career high 9.5 sacks). He hits free agency at a largely ideal time in his career, still fairly shy of 30, having steadily risen to his Pro Bowl season. While other edge rushers are pending free agents, not all are likely to actually hit the market. The Ravens have very little in the pass rush department set to return if they were to lose Judon. They’re probably a little more sensitive about the situation after having watched Za’Darius Smith have the best season of his career after departing for Green Bay last offseason.
The Ravens are projected to have nearly $30,000,000 in cap space (assuming a $199,000,000 salary cap) with work to do but are likely to free up some money via Tony Jefferson’s contract, too. They’ve also been prioritizing secondary, not pass rush, in decision making due to a more analytical approach to building a team. The world will be worse off when “The Good Place” ends later this week. I think that covers it, right?
Oh, right. The whole franchise tag thing. Yeah. That’s messy. So CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported late in the season that the Ravens would be prepared to use the tag to keep Judon in Baltimore. At face value, that would make this situation far less complicated. Either a deal gets done or the Ravens use the tag, set the market value for a deal and buy themselves a little bit of time to get the deal done eventually.
But then came a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter suggesting the team would consider a “tag and trade” scenario — similar to what the Seahawks did last year with Frank Clark, netting quality draft capital in exchange for a player they weren’t going to keep long-term.
So with all of that background, this collection of sentences can become a “column” when I frame it around the question, “What exactly should the Ravens do here?”
The answer? Well … they shouldn’t do what they did with Anquan Boldin.
Your first thought is probably, “Are we really doing the Boldin thing again? REALLY?” No, not really. It’s just necessary for context. The Ravens’ decision to trade away Anquan Boldin after 2012 was easily the worst in franchise history, but the problem wasn’t specifically the trade itself. If the Ravens for whatever insane reason thought Boldin specifically wasn’t the perfect fit for football and/or financial reasons, so be it. The actual mistake is that the Ravens moved on from Boldin without having any sort of adequate replacement either on the roster or in the holster (free agency/trade). They instead wasted the 2013 season before acquiring Steve Smith Sr.
Moving on from Judon — either because they don’t tag or sign him or because they tag him and trade him — would only be acceptable if the Ravens are then able to sign a reliable pass rusher to replace his production. They absolutely can’t afford to try to solve this issue with Tandon Doss and Marlon Brown, err, Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser. Ferguson in particular showed some signs during his rookie season that he might have something to offer long term, but the team can’t afford to be forced to count on that quickly coming to fruition at such an important position on the field. They also can’t pigeonhole themselves into having to take a pass rusher early in the NFL Draft or picking from the scrap heap before the season begins.
From a football standpoint, the Ravens might well be best suited to tag Judon if they know they have a potential trade partner that is willing to give them at least one significant draft pick (even if they’re not likely to get a Frank Clark-like ransom). But it’s only an acceptable option if they know they can follow it up by signing a legitimate free agent (like Jadaveon Clowney or Yannick Ngakoue, provided they become available). Simple math suggests it might cost them a little more money, but that money would also buy them a pick (or more) in the trade. Makes sense.
But it’s also a lot to come together in a short time. When the Seahawks did the same a year ago with Clark, they left themselves a potentially disastrous pass rush hole until they were able to deal for Clowney just before the season. Tagging and trading Judon has to be paired with an immediate signing who can replace Judon’s production.
Or … they could just sign or tag Judon. That’s a perfectly acceptable option. It might not net them a bonus draft pick, but he’s a very good player whose chemistry has worked, and given their cap situation, they probably won’t be doomed if they have to pay him like an “elite” pass rusher even if he’s only a “really good” one moving forward. It’s probably the best possible thing they can do.
But no matter what, they absolutely cannot leave themselves without a reliable, proven pass rusher. Or abandon the run when they’re trailing by two possessions.
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