Some NFL players express disappointment or bitterness when they receive the franchise tag, essentially a one-year contract that keeps the player from hitting free agency and does nothing for the player’s long-term future.
Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon struck a decidedly different tune when he met with the media via teleconference June 15, saying he felt “blessed to have to play under the tag.” By signing his franchise tag tender, Judon is guaranteed a payday of $16.8 million, the midpoint of the defensive end and linebacker tags – and by far more money than he had made during his first four NFL seasons combined.
“I feel like only a few players get to go through this in their lifetime,” said Judon, a former fifth-round draft pick out of Grand Valley (Mich.) State. “As much as I want stability in the future … I’m proud of where I’m at and where I came from.”
Judon, who turns 28 in August, led the Ravens with a career-best 9.5 sacks this season and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He has totaled 183 tackles, 28.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles during his four-year career.
The team and Judon have until July 15 to work out a long-term contract extension, or Judon must play the season under the one-year tag, and he would be eligible to hit free agency next season.
This is a dance the Ravens know well. The past four times they have used the franchise tag, the two sides have ultimately worked out a long-term deal. (The most recent example was kicker Justin Tucker, tagged in 2016.)
Judon said he would like to remain with the Ravens “for as long as I play,” but he also recognizes the business decisions that loom. A long-term deal for Judon would lower Judon’s $16.8 million cap hit this year but commit much more money to future years, when the Ravens face other major roster decisions.
“They’ve kind of got a ‘bad-good’ problem to have,” Judon said. “We have a lot of young talent, and unfortunately, we can’t all stay on the rookie deal our whole careers. So they have stuff that they have to address, and obviously I have needs as well.”
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is set to hit free agency next season — he will be a franchise tag candidate in 2021 if no long-term deal is reached — and the Pro Bowl trio of cornerback Marlon Humphrey, tight end Mark Andrews and tackle Orlando Brown Jr. are among those whose contracts expire a year after that. (Quarterback Lamar Jackson’s rookie contract also ends after the 2021 season, but since Jackson was a first-round draft pick, the Ravens hold a fifth-year option on him that they will certainly exercise.)
The four-year, $66 million deal the Packers gave former Raven Za’Darius Smith last season is bound to come up as a frame of reference in any Judon negotiations. Reports earlier this offseason suggested Judon, with a more accomplished resume, including a Pro Bowl appearance, was asking for more than that.
But as with so much else in 2020, these contract deliberations could be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. There is speculation that the salary cap could go down next season because of a sharp drop in league revenue if there is a disrupted season or a season without fans. That could change how both Judon and the Ravens evaluate this negotiating game, which figures to go down to the mid-July wire.
Judon said he has left the negotiating to his agent, staying out of the direct discussions with GM Eric DeCosta and senior vice president Pat Moriarty, the team’s point man on contracts, but as he spoke he pointed out that he was wearing Ravens shorts and said, “I’m happy to be a Raven.”
“As long as I continue to play this game, I’m going to feel blessed,” Judon said. “If I have to play under the tag, that’s good for me, because it’s another year.”
“If I play under the franchise tag, or if we come to a long-term deal,” he added, “I’m going to be happy regardless.”
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