Ravens' tag decision on Matthew Judon will shape offseason

Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Can the Baltimore Ravens truly afford to lose Matthew Judon?

Can they truly afford, financially, to keep their Pro Bowl outside linebacker?

That's the dilemma facing a Baltimore team that lacks pass-rushers and salary-cap space. The window to use the franchise tag is from Feb. 25 to March 10, and the Ravens' decision on whether to apply it on Judon will affect their free-agency game plan like no other.

If Baltimore puts the tag on Judon, over half of its projected $33 million in cap space is gone. That would severely limit the Ravens' ability to add another pass-rusher, a proven interior offensive lineman and a playmaking wide receiver in free agency, all of which are needed for Baltimore to overtake the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

If the Ravens don't use the tag, Judon is likely gone in free agency and the defense is left with its biggest void at pass-rusher since the franchise's inaugural season. This puts extreme pressure on Baltimore to sign a premier edge rusher because the remaining players -- Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson -- have a combined 10.5 career sacks.

At the end of the season, coach John Harbaugh was asked how much he wanted Judon back and how hard it would be to keep him. His response: "Very much and pretty hard."

Here are the Ravens' options with Judon:

Tag him: This is the expected move. The next question is how much will it cost. The Ravens will want to tag him as an outside linebacker, which is projected to be $16.3 million, according to OverTheCap. Judon will want to get tagged as a defensive end, which is projected to be $19.3 million. Baltimore faced this situation with Terrell Suggs in 2008, and he eventually was designated as a defensive end-outside linebacker and received the difference between the two tags. If that's the case with Judon, the price will be $17.8 million. That would leave Baltimore with roughly $15 million in cap room; only nine teams currently have less. This would hinder the spending power for a team that could use a proven wide receiver like A.J. Green or Emmanuel Sanders and a pass-rusher like Arik Armstead, Calais Campbell (if cut) or Ryan Kerrigan (if traded).

Don't use the tag: It would be a surprise if Baltimore lets Judon hit the open market after last offseason, when Za'Darius Smith left for the Green Bay Packers in free agency and recorded a career-high 13.5 sacks. Allowing another young pass-rusher in his prime to walk a year later would be a tough sell to fans, especially after the Ravens finished No. 21 in the league with 37 sacks. But an argument can be made there is more value in Baltimore not tagging Judon and using that $17.8 million in cap space on getting a couple of top-notch pass-rushers who can help on the interior and on the edge. If the Ravens go this route, they need to have a better backup plan than last year. After losing Smith, Baltimore signed Pernell McPhee (three sacks before getting injured after seven games) and Shane Ray (cut before regular season) in free agency and drafted Ferguson (2.5 sacks as a rookie) in the third round.

Sign him to a long-term deal: The Ravens have traditionally used the tag to buy time to get a long-term deal done. The last five players franchised by Baltimore -- cornerback Chris McAlister (2003 and 2004), 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.

Those who believe Judon has earned a big-money contract say he's already a great pass-rusher who has yet to reach his peak at age 27. His 33 quarterback hits last season ranked fourth in the NFL, and he's one of 16 players to record at least seven sacks in each of the past three seasons. Others contend Judon isn't in that same class of Chandler Jones, J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan, all of whom average between $16 million and $17 million per season. Judon has failed to produce double-digit sacks in a single season and he didn't make a sack as part of a four-man rush last season (all 9.5 sacks came off Baltimore blitzes). His current market value is $16.3 million per season, according to Spotrac.

Tag Judon and then trade him: This scenario was first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter last month, and it makes a lot of sense if Baltimore can find an interested team. The Ravens can get an immediate, upgraded return for Judon (unlike a third-round compensatory pick next year if he signs elsewhere in free agency) and they don't have to invest a huge chunk of their cap space in one player. Last offseason provided the template for the tag-and-trade of pass-rushers. The Chiefs got a second-round pick from the San Francisco 49ers for Dee Ford, and the Seattle Seahawks got three picks (first- and third-round picks in 2019 plus a second-round pick in 2020) from the Chiefs for Frank Clark and a 2019 third-round pick.

If Baltimore can pry a second-round pick from a pass-rush-needy team such as Seattle or Atlanta, it would represent another win for general manager Eric DeCosta. He has excelled in the trade market from dealing quarterback Joe Flacco for a fourth-round pick and kicker Kaare Vedvik for a fifth-rounder, to acquiring Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters for a fifth-round pick and linebacker Kenny Young. With an additional pick and more cap space, the Ravens have the resources to rebuild their front seven to make another championship run.