Baltimore Ravens should bring back Judon, at the right cost

The Matt Judon situation could shape entire offseason for the Baltimore Ravens’ brass:

With all due respect to Jay-Z, the Ravens have a 99 problem, and it’s a pretty big one.

The biggest question mark for the Baltimore Ravens this offseason centers on soon-to-be-free-agent edge defender Matthew Judon. One season after losing Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith to expiring contracts, the team could be next waving goodbye to Judon, as teams with much more cap space than the Ravens will be looking to add pass-rush to their rosters at nearly any cost.

Defensively, the Ravens probably outperformed most expectations last season — especially when one considers the departures of Suggs, Smith, Eric Weddle, C.J. Mosley and others from the top-ranked defense in the league in 2018. A big chunk of their success was due to an exceptional defensive backfield, creative pressure packages from coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and Brandon Williams returning to form in the middle, pushing much of the action to the edges.

One expectation for the defense that did hold up, however, was an expected lack of pass rush. Outside of Judon, and occasional appearances from Tyus Bowser and rookie Jaylon Ferguson, the defense mostly got to opposing quarterbacks through scheme, with blitzing defensive backs shooting through gaps.

The Ravens have appeared to concentrate their priorities, and salary cap, on the talented backfield, and that makes sense in today’s NFL. But it works best when young edge-defenders continue to develop and provide a rush under rookie contracts. Outside of Judon, the Ravens haven’t really seen consistency from those budget-friendly defenders, including Bowser, Ferguson and the now-departed Kamalei Correa and Tim Williams.

That puts a stress on the best of plans, and the Ravens are facing the very-real possibility of having to add two edge defenders to the team if Judon leaves. Yes, it will cost a good bit of money to keep Judon, and that becomes increasingly more difficult with the idea that the team will also have to pay Ronnie Stanley and Marlon Humphrey very soon, with star quarterback Lamar Jackson inching toward a cap-changing deal in the not-too-distant future.

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But the Ravens went 14-2 last year. They still have Jackson on the cheap for another year or two. The window is now. Right now.

Spotrac estimates Judon will get a contract in the vicinity of four years, $65 million. That’s a lot of bread for a player who has never reached double figures in sacks. That’s more than $16 million a year for a team that is financially committed to other positions.

But consider this: Judon is a leader on the defense. He has posted 8, 7 and 9.5 sacks the last three seasons, so his floor is high, relatively speaking. And, quite frankly, he’s the only thing the Ravens can count on in regards to beating his man with any kind of regularity and getting to the quarterback.

Sure, the team can draft a gem in the first round who can become a star. And they could land a big free agent in the offseason. But, why spend resources on each when you know what Judon brings on one side of the defense, and to the locker room. And what happens if there isn’t an edge guy available in the draft that they feel comfortable drafting at that pick? The Ravens still need to add another guy even if they keep Judon, but why add two?

If the Ravens can sign Judon to a contract worth $16 million a year, they should do so tonight. Sure, they should turn away and take another road if Judon gets to free agency and gets offers north of $20 million, but if he’s in that neighborhood, and if he’s interested, they need to bring 99 back into the fold.

Next: NFL Free Agency: Ranking priorities for the Ravens

The window is now. Let’s not leave the cupboard bare at an important position.

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