Ravens put franchise tag on pass rusher Matthew Judon

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens officially placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Matthew Judon on Friday, keeping the team's top pass-rusher from hitting free agency.

Judon, 27, reached the first Pro Bowl of his four-year career after leading the Ravens with a personal-best 9.5 sacks and recording the fourth-most quarterback hits in the NFL with 33.

The move had long been expected and comes at a steep price. The tag on Judon will cost $16.3 million, almost half of Baltimore's projected $37 million salary cap space, which will limit what the team can do in free agency.

The Ravens have traditionally used the tag to buy time to get a long-term deal done. The past five players franchised by Baltimore -- cornerback Chris McAlister (2003 and 2004), linebacker Terrell Suggs (2008 and 2009), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (2011), running back Ray Rice (2012) and kicker Justin Tucker (2016) -- eventually got contracts that made them among the highest-paid at their positions.

"I'd rather have a long-term deal for stability," Judon said Friday in a text to ESPN's Josina Anderson. "It is what it is. I feel like this is what many of us go through that are facing free agency. At the end of the day, I know I'm playing football next season."

Baltimore, which finished with the NFL's best regular-season record last season at 14-2, couldn't risk losing Judon. Addressing the pass rush has become an offseason priority for the Ravens after they ranked 21st in the league with 37 sacks, their fewest since 2015.

Not retaining Judon would've been a tough sell a year after losing another pass-rusher in his prime. Za'Darius Smith, who left Baltimore for Green Bay last offseason, finished sixth in the NFL in 2019 with 13.5 sacks.

The Ravens designated Judon as an outside linebacker, which carries a tag that is worth $3 million less than the one for defensive ends ($19.3 million). Of Judon's 28.5 career sacks, 19.5 have come when he has lined up as an outside linebacker. He's played 84% of his snaps as an outside linebacker in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

At the NFL combine last month, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta declined to specify what position Judon would get tagged, saying, "That doesn't do me any good to talk about that."

DeCosta said at the combine that a long-term deal was "something that we would love to get accomplished."

Judon could also be a candidate to get tagged and traded, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported in January. Sources told Schefter that Ravens officials are likely to listen if another team expresses interest in acquiring him.

Asked about his future after the playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, Judon said, "Honestly, I love it in Baltimore. I'm appreciative of DeCosta, of Ozzie [Newsome], of Coach Harbs [John Harbaugh] giving me an opportunity. They trusted in me starting for the last three years. They gave me a bigger ... role on the team, and I'm forever grateful to them. But ultimately, that's a decision that comes from them and me."

There are questions about whether Judon is merely a good pass-rusher or elite. He has the most sacks by any Ravens player since 2017 with 24.5, but he didn't have a sack in 2019 when part of a four-man rush -- all came on blitzes.

A fifth-round pick in 2016, Judon was one of three NFL defenders in 2019 to record at least 50 tackles, nine sacks, 30 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles. The others were Shaquil Barrett and T.J. Watt.

Coaches and teammates have raved over the years about how hard Judon studies and practices, from playing on the punt-return team in recent years, to setting the edge on run plays, to relentlessly chasing down quarterbacks. Without Smith and Terrell Suggs last season, Judon also stepped up as a leader on defense.

"He's probably, as much as anybody, our anchor, or certainly one of the big anchors in our defense," Harbaugh said toward the end of the regular season. "He's proven who he is as a football player. He's established himself as one of the top outside linebacker, pass-rusher, edge-setters in the National Football League right now."