Ravens silent about possibly franchise-tagging Justin Madubuike

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' most expensive offseason move could be made over the next couple of weeks.

Just don't ask the Ravens about it.

Baltimore is expected to place the franchise tag on defensive tackle Justin Madubuike to keep the first-time Pro Bowl player from reaching free agency next month. The window to use the tag begins Tuesday and ends March 5 at 4 p.m. ET. Using the tag to keep Madubuike is an easy decision. The challenge is fitting the tag under Baltimore's tight salary cap.

Asked at the end-of-season news conference about whether Baltimore plans to place the tag on Madubuike, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta brought up the contract talks with quarterback Lamar Jackson last year.

"One of the great things about that negotiation was that I learned that it's beneficial to just not talk about things," DeCosta said on Feb. 2. "There is a value sometimes to not really showing your cards or showing your hand. So, we'll have all those decisions made at some point coming soon."

DeCosta and the Ravens may want to keep their cards close to their chest, but it would be a major shock if they didn't keep Madubuike. If Baltimore doesn't use the tag on Madubuike, he would become one of the league's top targets when free agency begins March 13. He is No. 4 in the free agency rankings by ESPN's Matt Bowen.

A third-round pick in 2020, Madubuike delivered a breakout season in 2023 and became the most productive interior pass-rusher. He recorded a career-best 13 sacks after totaling 8.5 sacks in his first three seasons. The Ravens' defense led the NFL in fewest points (16.5), most sacks (60) and tied for most takeaways (31) partly because it was strong up the middle with three All-Pros in Madubuike, middle linebacker Roquan Smith and strong safety Kyle Hamilton.

Putting the franchise tag on Madubuike would be pricey. The tag for defensive tackles is projected to be a one-year, $21 million tender, which ranks behind two positions -- quarterbacks ($36 million) and linebackers ($22.7 million) -- as far as cost. He made $2.7 million last season.

"In terms of Baltimore, man, that's home," Madubuike told the NFL Network at a Pro Bowl practice earlier this month. "But, you know, business is business, and that side is going to take care of itself."

The Ravens' salary cap space is currently projected to be less than $10 million in an offseason in which Baltimore is scheduled to have 25 unrestricted free agents. Baltimore will have to make several moves to create more space to use the tag and address other needs.

The most obvious cap-savings move would be gaining $5.5 million by releasing outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, who has missed 25 games in the past two seasons. The Ravens can free up another $5.5 million by cutting starting right tackle Morgan Moses, who turns 33 next month.

Baltimore can gain a total of $26.6 million in cap room by restructuring the contracts of Smith, Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews and safety Marcus Williams. The team would convert these salaries into bonuses, lowering their cap numbers for this season but increasing them in future years.

Another option is getting offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey to take pay cuts. Both have not lived up to expectations because of injuries, and both have salaries among the five highest on the team. Humphrey is scheduled to make $11.75 million this season, and Stanley is due to make $11 million.

It could be one of the more complicated offseasons for the Ravens, and the franchise tag involving Madubuike will play a large part in it.

"We'll have those decisions made in the coming weeks," DeCosta said. "We'll know what's best for us to do."