Late for Work 2/20: Pros and Cons of Franchise-Tagging Matthew Judon

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OLB Matthew Judon in an NFL game at M&T Bank Stadium.

The Pros and Cons of Franchise-Tagging Matthew Judon

There is plenty of discussion this offseason regarding what the Ravens should do with pending free agent Matthew Judon and how they should improve their pass rush.

Obviously, the two are connected.

Retaining Judon, who led Baltimore with 9.5 sacks, seems like no-brainer on the surface. The question becomes which course of action the Ravens should take to bring back the 27-year-old outside linebacker. Do they sign him to a long-term deal or place the franchise tag on him?

Another option is to tag-and-trade Judon and pursue a pass rusher in free agency. Then again, the Ravens could choose to retain Judon and sign a pass rusher.

In looking at the top candidates around the league to have the franchise tag placed on them, NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal wrote that retaining Judon by doing so is a "relatively easy choice."

The Baltimore Sun's Jonas Shaffer wrote that it isn't that simple, but he also believes it makes sense for the Ravens to franchise Judon.

"If the franchise tag is their best chance, it won't be a risk-free retention," Shaffer wrote. "But the pros outweigh the cons."

Here are some excerpts from Shaffer's in-depth look at the pros and cons:

Pro: Tagging Judon doesn't mean the Ravens have to keep him.

"With every tag, there's wiggle room on both sides. Tagged players don't have to sign their one-year tender. (Just ask Le'Veon Bell.) And teams aren't bound to their tagged player or his salary cap hit. If Judon's tagged, the Ravens could try to trade him for picks and players."

Con: It will get only harder to find an upper-tier pass rusher.

"The longer the Ravens wait to give Judon or another coveted free-agent pass rusher a multiyear contract, the bigger the bill will be. … There are only so many high-quality edge rushers, and with quarterback Lamar Jackson expected to keep the Ravens in playoff contention for the foreseeable future, the draft becomes a less viable resource for blue-chip prospects. Of the NFL's sack leaders since 2017, eight of the top 11 were selected in the first round, and just one after the No. 50-overall pick. Judon (24.5 sacks) is the only fifth-round pick among the top 35."

Pro: The Ravens' system and secondary don't account for Judon's success.

"Because the Ravens brought so much pressure under Defensive Coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale, the thinking goes, Judon had more one-on-one pass-rush opportunities. And because of the team's airtight secondary, quarterbacks surely held the ball for longer on pass plays, right?

"The stats and film tell a different story. According to ESPN, Judon beat his block within 2.5 seconds on 20% of plays last season, the 18th-best such rate in the NFL. … Added time didn't appear to be a significant factor, either. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, in the Ravens' 15 games against qualifying passers, just eight quarterbacks took longer to throw, on average, than their season-ending mark."

Con: There are still some red flags in his production.

"Judon graded out poorly in [Pro Football Focus'] run-defense grades. … Elsewhere, a year after ranking among PFF's highest-graded edge rushers in coverage, Judon allowed almost twice as many yards per target (7.1), though it was a rather small sample size (just 11 targets overall)."

Pro: Judon has improved every year, and he'd benefit from more help.

"While keeping Judon would require a significant financial commitment, the addition of other pass-rush threats, especially inside, could be a force multiplier for Martindale. According to ESPN, Judon finished tied for eighth in the NFL with 12 "sacks created," credited to the player with the first pass-rush win on a sack rather than the player who finished the play.

"If the Ravens let Judon get away — and get nothing in return — their pass rush will have even more questions than answers. Given their 2020 aspirations, that's not something they can afford."

Two Steelers Free Agents the Ravens Should Pursue

Could a couple members of the Pittsburgh Steelers' fifth-ranked defense be playing for the Ravens next season?

Even if the Ravens retain Judon, Ebony Bird's Richard Bradshaw wrote they should sign Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree. Dupree, Pittsburgh's 2015 first-round pick, had 11.5 sacks, 68 tackles, 17 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles this past season – all career highs.

"Should the Pittsburgh Steelers opt to not franchise tag him (they're too strapped for cash to sign him to a proper extension), Dupree will be one of the most sought-after commodities on the 2020 free-agency market," Bradshaw wrote. "If [the Ravens] could find a way to get both Judon and Bud Dupree together they'd have their bookend pass rushers to complete this defense. It wouldn't be cheap, but it would be well worth their investment."

To improve their interior pass rush, it would make sense for the Ravens to target Steelers defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, wrote Pro Football Focus' Anthony Treash, who predicted landing spots for PFF's top 50 free agents (Hargrave is ranked 33rd).

Treash projected Hargrave's contract at four years, $48 million ($28 million guaranteed).

"The Ravens' interior defensive line last season was among the bottom five in PFF pass-rush grade, and that might just be the position they target in March," Treash wrote. "The Steelers don't have the money to pay Javon Hargrave, which is great news for their division rival. Hargrave finished the 2019 season as one of the 15 highest-graded pass-rushers at his position."

On a side note, Treash predicted Ravens defensive tackle Michael Pierce (No. 42 in PFF's rankings) will sign with the Denver Broncos for three years, $15 million ($6.5 million guaranteed).

"After posting PFF grades of 79.7, 86.9 and 91.0 in his first three seasons, Pierce lowered that mark to 69.1 in 2019," Treash wrote. "The Broncos might be able to get a bargain for Pierce if he's able to get back to form."

Gus Edwards Among Early Extension Candidates

Last week in Late for Work, we looked at which Ravens could be next in line for a contract extension, with pending free agents Judon and cornerback Jimmy Smith among the leading candidates, in addition to returning players such as offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey.

The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec looked at some other players the Ravens will have to decide on in the near future. One of them is running back Gus Edwards.

Edwards, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018, has rushed for 1,429 yards in two seasons and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.

"He's the No. 2 back behind Mark Ingram, but as long as Greg Roman is directing the Ravens offense, multiple backs will be used," Zrebiec wrote. "Edwards is the no-nonsense type of personality that the Ravens love, and he's flashed lead back type of reliability. The earlier the Ravens get on this, the better chance they'd have of getting a deal on their terms.

"A multi-year pact in the neighborhood of $3 million per season could be the type of deal that works for both sides."

Center Matt Skura is a restricted free agent, and the team will have to decide whether to use a second-round or original-round tender on a three-year starter who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 12.

"For Skura, the shame of his injury was he was ascending as a player and the timing of it will almost certainly cost him some money, starting this offseason," Zrebiec wrote. "Until he shows he's back health-wise, it isn't prudent to even speculate what his next contract might look like."

Punter Sam Koch, who will turn 38 prior to the start of the 2020 season, has one year year left on his contract.

"The bet here is if he wants to continue to punt through next season, it will be with the Ravens, and it shouldn't be too difficult to work out an extension," Zrebiec wrote. "Koch is still very good at his job and hasn't shown any dips in his performance as he's gotten older."

Six Surprise Picks for Ravens in First Round

While Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray, LSU linebacker Patrick Queen, Wisconsin edge rusher Zack Baun and Alabama edge rusher Terrell Lewis are frequently linked to the Ravens in mock drafts, Ravens Wire's Matthew Stevens identified "six surprising but plausible" players the Ravens could select with the 28th-overall pick.

One of them – Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor – was mocked to the Ravens by Draft Wire's Luke Easterling. Here's a look at the other five players along with excerpts of Stevens' comments on each:

LSU S Grant Delpit: "After signing Earl Thomas last offseason and handing Chuck Clark a three-year contract extension this offseason, Baltimore is as set at safety as any team in the league. But … if Delpit is available at No. 28, the Ravens are going to have to give it some serious thought. … Getting younger and cheaper [at safety] would benefit the team greatly right as they're trying to re-sign big-name players like Ronnie Stanley, Lamar Jackson and Marlon Humphrey."

Georgia OT Andrew Thomas: "Stanley is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract and there is absolutely no guarantee the Ravens will be able, or want, to afford what he'll end up costing. … It might not make a lot of sense for the Ravens to automatically assume they won't be able to re-sign Stanley but it seems like an even worse idea for them to not have a contingency plan there. If Baltimore really loves Thomas and he falls to them, they could surprise everyone by snagging him."

Alabama WR Henry Ruggs III: "Ruggs is a highly polished wide receiver with game-changing ability. He's got the deep speed to force defenses into throwing a safety over the top and has the agility with enough physicality to get open on short routes against press coverage with the speed to make any catch a touchdown. … It seems unlikely Ruggs falls to the Ravens in the first round but weirder things have happened."

Florida CB C.J. Henderson: "Baltimore doesn't really have a need at cornerback and certainly not for a first-round talent that undoubtedly wouldn't start immediately. But if there's anything the Ravens have drilled into our heads over the years, it's that they don't care too much about their needs in the draft. If they love a player and think he's a value, they're going to write his name down on the card and send it to the podium."

Oklahoma DT Neville Gallimore: "Finding a legitimate starter and eventual heir for Williams could actually be a smart move for the long-term, though it would still be pretty shocking to see it happen with the 28th pick in the draft.

Quick Hits

  • NFL MVP Lamar Jackson was the Ravens' most improved player in 2019, according to PFF.

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