When trying to predict what might happen with the Ravens and linebacker Matthew Judon's pending free agency, I think of "It's a Wonderful Life," the classic Christmas movie starring Jimmy Stewart.
I know … I'm weird.
But I think you can see where Judon's situation is headed if you apply the movie's narrative structure to his case.
As you may know, Stewart's character contemplates jumping off a snowy bridge until an angel intervenes and shows him what the world would be like if he'd never been born and wasn't around. Stewart sees how he has impacted others.
OK, so along those lines, try imagining what the Ravens' defense would look like in 2020 if Judon isn't around.
Yup, the pass rush is a major question mark.
The rush had its stellar moments in 2019 but ended No. 21 in the league in sacks, indicating it needs to be addressed in the offseason either in free agency, the draft or both.
Given that, does it make sense for the Ravens to subtract their one player who was a difference-making pass rusher last season? No, it doesn't.
Judon ranked far ahead of any of his teammates in sacks (9.5), tackles for loss (14) and quarterback hits (33) in 2019. He also received solid marks for his run defense and made the Pro Bowl for the first time.
His departure would leave the Ravens considerably farther from their goal of mounting a more substantial pass rush in 2020. I think that means we're likely to see him back.
It would be the right move.
For it to happen, the Ravens either need to sign Judon to a long-term deal or retain him for 2020 by using the franchise tag. No doubt, the two sides are negotiating right now with free agency due to begin March 18.
I'm sure the Ravens' first choice is the long-term deal. They've prioritized retaining their top players, and Judon is among their best.
I'm also sure Judon's first choice is a long-term deal, although he's due a big raise no matter what happens. A year ago, Za'Darius Smith became a free agent and signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Green Bay Packers. Judon has better stats through four years.
If the sides can't agree on terms, the franchise-tag option gives the Ravens a consequential fallback plan. They can keep Judon for 2020 if they want, paying him somewhere north of $16 million – the going rate for impactful pass rushers these days.
The alternative would be to let him walk and basically rebuild the pass rush from scratch.
For the record, I think he and his 28.5 career sacks ARE worth the investment. He is an emerging locker room leader and still an ascending player at age 27.
I also sniff some "grass is greener" inflated optimism in the idea of a total rebuild of the pass rush. Is bringing in a new group really preferable to building around Judon? I don't think so.
For starters, the fact that the Ravens are drafting No. 28 overall pretty much guarantees they won't add a difference-making rookie to the pass rush this year. Blue-chippers at that position are long gone by late in the first round.
I do think they'll make a rush-related move in free agency, with Jadeveon Clowney, Shaquil Barrett and Yannick Ngakoue among the big names who could be available. I could easily see the Ravens trying to sign one to pair with Judon. Great idea.
But could the Ravens sign two elite pass rushers? They'd have to do something like that if Judon departs, yet a lot of other teams have more money to spend. I don't see it happening.
Yes, retaining Judon will be costly however it happens, but the tag gives the Ravens another year of him without a long-term investment.
I've also seen it suggested the Ravens could tag Judon and trade him because he'd bring a lot in return, an interesting thought. But the Ravens want to win a Super Bowl in 2020 and have every right to believe they can. Their chances are better if they build their pass rush around Judon, their homegrown Pro Bowler, instead of trying to do it without him.