The idea of having both Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in the lineup next season sounds great to Head Coach John Harbaugh. But whether that happens remains to be seen.
Judon and Ngakoue are set to become unrestricted free agents, as are Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. The four outside linebackers accounted for 14 sacks in 2020, led by team-leader Judon (six sacks), who earned Pro Bowl recognition for the second straight year.
Judon played under the franchise tag (reportedly at $16.8 million) this season after he and the Ravens could not agree on a long-term deal but found a compromise on the value of the tag. Placing the franchise tag on him again this offseason would be even more expensive.
Judon knows his future is uncertain again, but Harbaugh's feelings about Judon are clear.
"I want Matt Judon back, yes," Harbaugh said Wednesday. "Whether that will be possible … Again, it's such an unpredictable year with the salary cap. What is anybody going to get paid? And who has cap money? Three teams have, really, any significant amount of cap money. So, we'll have to see about that.
"But Matt had a great year. All-around player, plays super hard, very good leader, awesome competitor. He does everything well. He rushes, he plays the run, he drops, he plays special teams. He's an all-around, excellent, excellent football player. So, nothing but applause for Matt Judon and what he's done."
Judon has worked hard to earn his stature as a premier defensive player, entering the NFL as fifth-round pick in 2016 from Grand Valley State. Harbaugh said he remembers seeing something special in Judon when he watched his college tape.
"I saw him play for Grand Valley against Ashland; it was the first tape I saw," Harbaugh said. "And I'm like, 'Woah, who is this guy?' Then, I looked him up, and I saw he's 275 pounds, and I'm like, 'What?' Then, I found out he had a bad knee for his senior season. We were right, the league was wrong, on that one. That's one of our successes. We didn't miss on him."
Judon made one of the defense's biggest plays in the playoff loss in Buffalo, sacking and forcing a fumble on Bills quarterback Josh Allen that the defense wasn't able to recover. If the Ravens had gotten that ball, it could have flipped the game.
Not only has Judon been productive on the field with 34.5 career sacks in five seasons, but he's also been a leader in the Ravens locker room.
"He's meant a lot to this defense," cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. "I think anytime you see a play, you're always going to see some guy running full speed giving his all with a lot of hustle. I think he's been a big voice to the defense, for sure. [He's] one of our top leaders, I think. You think you know guys like him come around often, but I don't think they do."
The Ravens also have a rare talent in Ngakoue. After he was acquired in a mid-season trade with the Minnesota Vikings, Ngakoue had just three sacks in 11 games with Baltimore. But Ngakoue is proven sack artist, with at least eight sacks in all five of his NFL seasons. His best game in Baltimore came against one of his former teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars, when Ngakoue had two sacks.
The University of Maryland product is still only 25 years old, and though Ngakoue played just 20 snaps in the playoffs loss to the Buffalo Bills, Harbaugh said Ngakoue would have a bigger role if he returns to Baltimore.
"I love the guy, and he wants to contribute," Harbaugh said. "We had a unique situation here with all the outside 'backers we had. So, going forward, if he chooses, and we work it out and he's here, it'll be a little different, because he'll be here from the beginning, and he'll be starting, and he'll get a lot more snaps than he got this year.
"I don't think you can really judge it based on what you saw, in terms of that. He's a great guy, he's a very talented guy, he plays hard as heck. He bought in 100% to what we're doing, as far as the different techniques we use, like setting the edge and things like that, and I love him. He's a great pass rusher, too, and [a] high-motor guy. So, I have nothing but love and respect for 'Yan' and the type of player and person that he is."