The Ravens feel good about improving their pass rush and have begun to put their plan in motion.
It officially began Friday when they placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Matthew Judon. While it remains to be seen if Judon and the Ravens can agree on a long-term contract, Baltimore was not willing to let him walk away without compensation during free agency. He's an ascending player at age 27 who led the team in 2019 with a career-high 9 ½ sacks and 33 quarterback hits.
If Judon is traded, the Ravens will get assets in return. But if he stays with the Ravens and plays under the franchise tag, Judon proved last season that he can handle being a No. 1 pass rusher. After Baltimore lost Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs during free agency in 2019, Judon became the pass rusher that Ravens' opponents were most concerned about. Some edge rushers see their production drop when they're not paired with another top pass rusher. But Judon flourished as the top guy, putting together his best season and emerging as one of the team's defensive leaders.
"Tremendous respect for Matt, the year that he had this year, his leadership, his production, effort, what he brings to the team," General Manager Eric DeCosta said at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Judon is a proven commodity as an NFL pass rusher. A bigger question is whether Tyus Bowser and Jaylen Ferguson will continue to improve, and whether the Ravens will add another pass rusher via the draft or free agency who can contribute immediately.
Bowser had his most productive season with five sacks in 2019, and he's still only 24 years old. It's a good sign that Bowser is trending upward. Smith had 10 sacks over his first three seasons. Bowser isn't too far off that with 8.5.
But while a pass rusher's effectiveness can't be measured solely by sacks, the Ravens would like to see more consistency from Bowser. He recorded just one sack over the final six games last season, including the playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Ferguson, the NCAA's all-time career sack leader, has the tools to be an effective NFL pass rusher. He only had 2 ½ sacks as a rookie, but all of them came after Week 10. Ferguson looked like a player who was growing more comfortable each week, which bodes will for his second season when players often make a major leap.
Baltimore was 21st in the NFL in sacks (37) last season, its lowest ranking since 2016. However, the Ravens were also 14-2 and ranked fourth-overall defensively. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale called more blitzes than any team in the league and found creative ways to pressure quarterbacks.
"I think Wink Martindale does an unbelievable job taking players, finding out what they can do, putting them in position to succeed, and they did that this year," DeCosta said.
With a pass rush led by Judon, Ferguson and Bowser, the Ravens have a young nucleus even before they make any additions through the draft or free agency. Baltimore is expected to pursue big-time free agent additions in the front seven, but the Ravens have seven picks in the first four rounds, and this draft class is well-stocked with pass rushers.
Judon was a fifth-round draft pick who developed into an excellent player. The Ravens believe they can find one or two more solid pass rushers in this year's draft.
"We think it's a good year," DeCosta said. "We're always looking at these defensive ends, undersized defensive ends in college, 4-3 defensive ends that we can convert to outside linebacker. We see those type of guys. But we're also looking at some guys that we can play five technique that can rush the passer as well. We're also looking at the three technique, the disruptive guys who can rush as a defensive tackle. We're trying to find guys that can get after the quarterback."