The Baltimore Ravens have major questions to tackle related to their 2019 roster, including whether to re-sign pending free agent Pro Bowl linebackers C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs, whether to retain high-priced veterans such as safety Eric Weddle and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, and, of course, what to do with former franchise quarterback Joe Flacco.
But it's not too early to be thinking about 2020, either.
This is the ideal time for the Ravens to consider extensions for would-be 2020 free agents, and tops on that list figures to be linebacker Matthew Judon.
Judon is part of a 2016 draft class that included a couple of bad early whiffs (linebacker Kamalei Correa in the second round and defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi in the third) but an impressive haul on Day Three. The Ravens took Judon in the fifth round out of Grand Valley State after coming away with five fourth-round picks, all of whom have made contributions: cornerback Tavon Young, receiver Chris Moore, guard Alex Lewis, defensive lineman Willie Henry and running back Kenneth Dixon.
All of those players enter the final year of their rookie deals in 2019 and will become free agents next spring. (The team has a fifth-year option for its first-round pick that year, tackle Ronnie Stanley.)
At his introductory news conference on Jan. 30, general manager Eric DeCosta noted that the organization's goal is to "keep as much young talent as we can in Baltimore. … It's something we've talked about at length."
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti in the past has said that his team-building philosophy involves paying for "ascending players," and Judon would seem to fit that mold.
Judon turns 27 in August and is coming off a season in which he recorded 44 tackles and seven sacks, tied for second on the team. Three of those sacks came, remarkably enough, on consecutive plays against the Oakland Raiders.
Although Judon recorded just one sack during the final five games, he was perhaps the most consistent player on the league's top-ranked defense throughout the final month of the season. He finished the regular season with 20 quarterback hits, second-most on the team, and recorded five more in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Judon, who had eight sacks in 2017, has also contributed on special teams and has proved to be durable; he has not missed a game in the past two seasons.
For both sides, there are risks and rewards to getting a deal done now.
For the Ravens, Judon offers a degree of certainty and consistency at a valuable position where questions abound. Suggs might or might not return at age 37 next year and Za'Darius Smith is likely to leave as a free agent this year. Edge rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams have yet to develop after being Day Two draft picks in 2017.
Signing Judon to an extension now would almost certainly be cheaper and more cap-friendly than waiting until he hits the open market.
For Judon, extending his contract would give him financial security, as any long-term deal would include a significant amount of guaranteed money. He could wait and look for a more lucrative deal in free agency, but a serious injury next season could completely change that equation.
What would a such a deal look like?
It's worth noting that the Pittsburgh Steelers picked up the fifth-year option on edge rusher Bud Dupree for 2019 for about $9.2 million. That figure is derived by taking the average of the third through 25th top salaries at that position.
Is Judon a $9 million player? Of course, any deal would be crafted with much lower cap numbers in its early years, another advantage to getting something done sooner rather than later.
Judon won't have to look outside his own locker room to track this market: Smith, who led the Ravens with 8.5 sacks and 25 quarterback hits this year, is set to become free agent in March, and you can bet Judon's camp will be watching closely to see what happens with him.
DeCosta has said that one of his regrets during his two decades in the Ravens organization is that "we've lost some good young talent over the years just because we couldn't bring 'em back. The numbers go crazy. We look at the numbers as being crazy even though the numbers aren't crazy if that's what people are paying. But in general, I'm in a talent business, and we want to keep our best players and keep our team as strong as we can every single year."
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