As huge payday looms, Matthew Judon uncertain about future with Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon did his best to play coy when asked if this season felt any different because it's his contract year.

"You know what’s different about this year?" Judon said. "I don’t have braces on."

This is timely news for Judon because he'll soon have a million reasons to smile.

History says Judon will get paid handsomely. The last three Ravens draft picks who recorded at least 15 sacks with the team totaled $48.5 million in guaranteed money in free agency.

And history says there's a chance he'll leave. Paul Kruger (signed with Cleveland Browns), Pernell McPhee (Chicago Bears) and Za'Darius Smith (Green Bay Packers) all signed elsewhere.

It could be a different story for Judon and the Ravens. Baltimore has more salary-cap room next year than in recent memory, and first-year general manager Eric DeCosta has pledged to keep young talent that often received big money from other teams.

What are the chances the Ravens end this run of young pass-rushers exiting Baltimore?

"I have no clue what the future holds," Judon said. "Hopefully, I’ll be here forever and ever. But, like this offseason, we never know."

This offseason, Smith joined the Packers on a four-year, $66 million deal, which was so steep that the Ravens couldn't compete. Smith got $20 million guaranteed (second-most given to an outside linebacker this year) after recording 18.5 sacks. Judon's asking price should exceed that after he's already racked up 19 sacks.

With Smith and Terrell Suggs gone, much of Baltimore's pass-rush hopes rest on Judon this season. Judon has the fifth-most sacks among players drafted in 2016, but he has never led the Ravens in sacks in any of his three seasons.

Pass rush is among the biggest concerns with Baltimore. It led the Ravens to sign McPhee and Shane Ray on bargain one-year deals.

"Matt Judon obviously has proven himself," coach John Harbaugh said at the owners meetings this year. "He’s got to take the next step. He’s very determined to do that. I have high expectations for Matt. I’m a believer in Matt Judon as a player, as a work ethic and all that. I just want to see him go. I believe he will."

The Ravens have had one of their busiest offseasons in terms of contract extensions, striking new deals with one of the NFL’s top young nickelbacks (Tavon Young), a perennial Pro Bowl guard (Marshal Yanda) and the league’s most accurate kicker of all time (Justin Tucker).

The top name on the Ravens' list is now Judon. ESPN’s Dan Graziano listed Judon as one of the top 50 players who could receive a contract extension before training camp.

He is scheduled to make $2.025 million this season, but it would take a lucrative deal in order to keep Judon from reaching free agency in March. He is expected to be the most sought-after pass-rusher next offseason outside of Jadeveon Clowney and Yannick Ngakoue.

Asked by a reporter if his agent and the Ravens have engaged in negotiations yet, Judon said, "Yes, they said they were going to pay me what they pay you."

A product of Division II, Judon led all of college football with 20 sacks in 2015, when he played at Grand Valley State. He lasted until the fifth round in that year's draft, where he was taken by Baltimore with the No. 146 overall pick.

Coaches and teammates rave about how Judon studies, practices and puts his heart into the Ravens, from playing on the punt return team to setting the edge on run plays to relentlessly chasing down quarterbacks. Judon said he feels at home playing for the Ravens, although he surely will have his pick of destinations come free agency.

"I almost drive to work with my eyes closed, and I love the people here, the culture here," Judon said. "They take care of us, and my friends are here, obviously, but, man, I enjoy coming to work. That’s why hopefully I stay around here for a long time, but I have to finish this season."