The Ravens have applied the franchise tag to outside linebacker Matthew Judon, meaning that their top pass rusher from last season will not hit the open market when free agency begins March 18.

It does not, however, guarantee that Judon will be with the Ravens next season; the Ravens could opt to trade Judon, which happened with a couple of tagged players last year.

Barring a tag-and-trade scenario, though, Judon will remain with the Ravens through at least the 2020 season. The two sides have until mid-July to work out a long-term deal or Judon must play out the 2020 season under the franchise tag, which carries a cap hit of about $16.2 million. Any long-term deal should significantly lower the salary-cap hit in the early years of the contract.

The Ravens faced a March 16 deadline to apply the tag, a deadline that was pushed back by a few days because of the pending vote on the league’s new collective bargaining agreement.

Judon, who turns 28 in August, started all 16 games this past season and finished with 54 tackles and set career highs in sacks (9.5) and quarterback hits (33) en route to the first Pro Bowl appearance of his career.

The former fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley (Mich.) State also developed into one of the defensive leaders in the locker room.

In applying the franchise tag to Judon, the Ravens departed from their traditional approach, which has been to draft and develop edge rushers but then to let them leave as free agents when the cost got prohibitive, gaining a compensatory draft pick in return.

They usually opted against using the franchise tag on edge rushers in the past, including Za’Darius Smith last year. The Ravens last used the tag in 2016 on kicker Justin Tucker, and haven’t used the tag on a defensive player since they tagged Haloti Ngata in 2011. Linebacker Terrell Suggs was tagged in 2008 and again in 2009.

The past four times the Ravens have used the franchise tag, including with Suggs in 2009, they have worked out a long-term deal with that player before the July deadline.

There remains the possibility that the Ravens could trade Judon, although Judon would need to sign the tag for a trade to happen, so he retains some leverage. The Ravens figured to receive a third-round compensatory pick for Judon should he leave, so any trade would presumably bring more in return.

The tag-and-trade concept gained traction after teams went that route last year. The Kansas City Chiefs tagged linebacker Dee Ford, then traded him to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick. The Chiefs later traded for defensive end Frank Clark, who had been tagged by the Seattle Seahawks.

Even if Judon returns, the pass rush remains one of the Ravens most pressing needs entering the 2020 season. The Ravens finished last season with 37 sacks, which ranked 21st in the league.

Other than Judon, no one on the Ravens totaled more than five sacks last season. If Judon were to leave, Tyus Bowser (5 sacks) and Jaylon Ferguson, who registered 2.5 sacks as a rookie, would be in line to start.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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