Every NFL general manager wants to hit on draft picks and when the time comes, reward those that earn it with a long-term contract. It sends the right message to the locker room when draft picks pan out and the team agrees to a new contract that represents a pay raise. It’s especially important for teams to do this when draft picks exceed expectations based on where they were selected.
Matt Judon was a fifth-round steal in the 2016 draft and has blossomed over the course of his career after earning more playing time and taking on a prominent role in the Baltimore Ravens’ defense. After years of sharing time with the likes of Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Za’Darius Smith, Judon started all 16 games in 2019 for the first time in his career and was on the field for a career-high 81 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps.
Judon was productive in 2017 (eight sacks, 17 tackles for loss, 19 quarterback hits) and 2018 (seven sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 20 QB hits) but set new career-highs in 2019 when he racked up 9 1/2 sacks, four forced fumbles and 33 QB hits to go with 14 tackles for loss. He was named to his first Pro Bowl.
Pass rushers leaving Baltimore in their prime has been too common of a trend for such a coveted role. In recent years the Ravens have seen Paul Kruger bolt for Cleveland, Pernell McPhee depart to Chicago and most recently Smith signed with the Packers in the last offseason. Smith signed a four-year, $66-million deal with Green Bay that Baltimore wasn’t in a position to match.
The trajectory of Judon and Smith’s careers are similar in many ways. Both were Day 3 picks that faced steep competition on the roster, earned more playing time and peaked in their contract season.
Baltimore didn’t have the available salary-cap space to compete with Green Bay’s offer for Smith who went on to have the best season of his career with 55 tackles, 13 1/5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 37 quarterback hits. Projected to have only a modest $27 million in available cap space, things are fairly tight yet again for Baltimore and an extension could be challenging.
Will another top pass rusher leave Baltimore? Let’s examine.
WHERE HE WINS
Judon brings exciting physical gifts to the table. Measuring 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Judon has almost 34-inch arms and clocked a 4.73-second 40-yard dash with a vertical jump of 35 inches. He has excellent size and is an explosive mover.
Because of his impressive physical skill set, Judon is able to fill multiple roles and is a versatile defender. He came out of college as a defensive end but the Ravens had him playing nearly exclusively as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He is capable of filling either role and for a team that is multiple with its defensive fronts, Judon would be the perfect chess piece.
While Judon’s best skill is his ability to rush the passer, he’s an adequate run defender as well.
Judon is a team leader and among the most active Ravens’ players in the community. From physical gifts and intangibles to versatility and a balanced skill set, Judon is the total package.
POTENTIAL RED FLAGS
There are two things to keep in mind when considering Judon’s next contract. First, Judon tore his ACL and it cost him the 2013 season at Grand Valley State. In addition, Judon missed the 2016 East-West Shrine Game due to a tweaked meniscus. While injuries have not been a problem for Judon across four NFL seasons, it’s something to be mindful of in his second contract.
While it was a case made against Smith last season the Ravens’ defense blitzes far more than any other team in the NFL. Baltimore led the NFL with a blitz percentage of 39.6 percent in 2018 and that number increased to 54.9 in 2019, 11.5 percent higher than the next closest team. To Judon’s credit, he took full advantage of Baltimore’s aggressive pressure packages, but it must be considered how much the scheme could have inflated his production.
While blitzes don’t just create favorable one-on-one matchups for Judon, they bring complementary rush and limit the escape routes available for the quarterback as the pocket compresses around them. Whether it’s the chances to get free on a rush or cleaning up the result of the pressure on the passer, there’s a reasonable belief that Judon benefited from that style of play.
Spotrac estimates Judon will receive an average salary of $16.3 million and I agree with that figure, but likely as the floor. In virtually the same scenario, Smith found a four-year, $66-million contract from the Packers last offseason. There’s a good chance Judon tops that.
POTENTIAL LANDING SPOTS
A return to Baltimore shouldn’t be ruled out, but even head coach John Harbaugh believes it will be “very hard” to sign him, but is “going to try.” If Judon hits the market, here are some logical destinations to sign him or work a tag and trade with.
The Bills boast one of the NFL’s best defensive units but there are some question marks regarding its edge-rusher situation. Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes are aging and Murphy’s deal expires after the 2020 season with Hughes’ contract up after 2021. Key reserve defensive end Shaq Lawson is set to become a free agent and Lorenzo Alexander retired. Armed with a projected $80 million in available cap space, Buffalo could look to Judon as a long-term answer at defensive end.
The chance of Judon working with Brian Flores in Miami is exciting. One of the masterminds behind the great Patriots’ defenses before taking over as the head coach in Miami last offseason, Flores will deploy Judon in all the right ways in Miami’s multi-front defense. The Dolphins have an abundance of needs, draft capital and the most cap space in the NFL. They could check off an important box by coming to terms with Judon.
New York Jets
The Jets only had two players accumulate more than three sacks last season and one of them was safety Jamal Adams. New York has a massive need for edge-rushing talent for Gregg Williams’ blitz-heavy defense. Judon could be deployed similarly to his role in Baltimore and fill a big need for the Jets who have an estimated $49 million in cap space to work with.
Also worth mentioning are:
Tennessee Titans: Judon and Harold Landry would be an exciting tandem of edge rushers and the Titans could make it work under the cap.
New York Giants: This would be an ideal fit in the same ways I detailed for both the Dolphins and Jets. The Giants have plenty of cap space.
Seattle Seahawks: If Seattle doesn’t retain Jadeveon Clowney, Judon is a logical replacement.