Ravens place franchise tag on Pro Bowl DT Justin Madubuike


The Baltimore Ravens’ stated priority for Justin Madubuike was to finalize an agreement on a long-term contract extension with the ascending defensive tackle. But unable to hammer out a deal, they made sure Madubuike wouldn’t be hitting the open market with other unrestricted free agents next week.

The Ravens opted to use the non-exclusive franchise tag on the 26-year-old, making the final call just ahead of Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET closing of the tag window. The move, which was treated as a formality if the two sides were unable to find a compromise on a long-term deal, puts Madubuike in line to play the season on the $22.1 million tag and further limits the team’s salary-cap flexibility.

“We were unable to agree on a contract extension with Justin before the deadline and will use the franchise tag,” Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta said. “Justin is a great player and person, and we will continue to negotiate a long-term deal with him.”

It also gives the Ravens and Madubuike another deadline in their talks about a multiyear deal. They’ll now have until July 15 to work out a contract extension. Without one, the talks would have to be shelved until after the 2024 season.

Having to use the tag isn’t the worst-case scenario for Baltimore. That would have been Madubuike hitting the open market, where he would have undoubtedly had a host of suitors following his breakout 2023 season that ended with his first Pro Bowl berth. The surprising $30 million salary-cap bump will help the Ravens in their efforts to absorb Madubuike’s current $22.1 million salary-cap hit.

Still, DeCosta has plenty of work to do. Baltimore was only operating with roughly $13 million of cap space when they tagged Madubuike, so they’ll need to make a host of cost-cutting movies just to be salary-cap compliant by the start of the new league year at 4 p.m. on March 13.

If Madubuike’s cap number remains at $22.1 million throughout the offseason, it would be difficult for the Ravens to make other significant expenditures without cutting a few veterans or restructuring several contracts, which DeCosta would prefer to avoid. It would also limit the team’s ability to retain many of its own free agents, a list including nearly two dozen players and key guys such as linebackers Patrick Queen, Jadeveon Clowney and Kyle Van Noy; starting guards Kevin Zeitler and John Simpson; and safety Geno Stone.

go-deeper

Even with a Madubuike extension, which would presumably have featured a relatively modest 2024 cap number that would have given the team’s decision-makers some breathing room, Baltimore would have been hard-pressed to keep all of the pending free agents it wanted to retain. Some tough decisions were going to have to be made either way, a fact DeCosta alluded to last offseason when he acknowledged quarterback Lamar Jackson’s landmark April 2023 contract extension would complicate the roster-building process.

But with Madubuike’s salary on the books, the flexibility to keep guys is further lessened, as is the ability to be more active on the free-agent market. DeCosta and company traditionally make one or two forays onto the open market to fill their biggest roster holes. However, the Ravens have never been overly aggressive in signing outside free agents.

They probably don’t have that luxury this offseason even if they wanted to be major players. But they couldn’t afford to lose Madubuike.

They’ve long been on the lookout for an interior pass rusher in his prime who could disrupt the quarterback weekly. Madubuike, a third-round pick in 2020, was that guy this past season, leading all interior defensive linemen with 13 sacks.

He easily eclipsed his previous career high of 5 1/2 sacks and ranked ninth overall in the NFL. He followed up a strong regular season with 13 quarterback pressures and a half-sack in two postseason games, as Baltimore’s season ended at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship.

Before Madubuike’s 2023 breakout, the Ravens hadn’t had an interior defensive lineman register a double-digit sack season since Trevor Pryce had 13 in 2006. Baltimore also believes Madubuike’s best years are ahead of him. He’s been very receptive to coaching and the mentorship of veterans, and he’s developed a work ethic and routine that works for him.

That has led to improvements every year.

The Ravens’ defense, which already lost coordinator Mike Macdonald to the Seattle Seahawks’ head-coaching job this offseason, figures to take some personnel hits in the coming weeks. It seems unlikely Queen, who paired with Roquan Smith to form one of the best inside linebacker duos in the NFL, and Stone, the AFC leader in interceptions, will return. Clowney and Van Noy, who combined for 18 1/2 sacks in 2023, also may have priced their way out of a return.

Veteran corners Ronald Darby and Arthur Maulet, who played meaningful snaps for Baltimore, aren’t certain to return.

It appears the Ravens will need to add depth at inside linebacker, cornerback and safety. But Madubuike’s return means they won’t have to use a major offseason asset on their defensive line. In fact, other than pending free-agent reserve defensive lineman Brent Urban, Baltimore could run it back with nearly an identical group from last year.

How Madubuike stacks up

Talk about coming off your best season by a mile for Madubuike heading into potential free agency. Here’s a breakdown of his yearly production in pass pressure percentage, sacks and pressures (via TruMedia, minimum 200 pass-rush snaps per season for rankings):

Year Prsr% Sacks Prsrs Ps rush snaps

2020

7.8 (NA)

1 (NA)

9 (NA)

116

2021

4.9 (167)

2 (124)

13 (164)

263

2022

8.3 (126)

5.5 (58)

32 (89)

386

2023

13.4 (45)

13 (9)

65 (21)

486

Here’s how Madubuike stood within the top defensive tackles in 2023 (rankings in parentheses are among all qualified pass rushers):

player Prsr% Sacks Prsrs

16.5 (8)

10.5 (9)

75 (7)

16.1 (9)

5.5 (41)

70 (8)

15.8 (12)

8.0 (22)

84 (5)

15.7 (13)

5.5 (41)

45 (40)

15.3 (15)

4.5 (59)

65 (12)

14.5 (20)

9.5 (15)

65 (12)

13.4 (25)

13.0 (4)

65 (12)

13.2 (26)

7.5 (26)

61 (17)

13.2 (27)

3.0 (81)

43 (45)

12.8 (30)

5.5 (41)

47 (38)

Here’s how Madubuike has stacked up among notable free-agent defensive linemen/pass rushers last season:

player Prsr% Sacks Prsrs Ps rush snaps

21.3 (2)

10.0 (22)

67 (18)

315 (100)

18.3 (5)

17.5 (2)

90 (5)

493 (17)

17.5 (10)

6.0 (61)

53 (40)

303 (107)

17.1 (14)

3.0 (118)

37 (87)

217 (173)

16.5 (16)

5.5 (69)

60 (27)

363 (78)

16.5 (17)

10.5 (17)

75 (12)

454 (33)

15.7 (23)

9.5 (25)

71 (13)

451 (36)

15.7 (24)

2.5 (128)

17 (156)

108 (188)

15.3 (28)

9.0 (28)

48 (53)

313 (101)

14.7 (34)

7.5 (46)

66 (20)

448 (40)

13.9 (39)

6.5 (56)

29 (111)

208 (182)

13.7 (42)

3.0 (118)

29 (111)

211 (179)

13.4 (44)

16.5 (5)

80 (10)

596 (2)

13.4 (45)

13.0 (9)

65 (21)

486 (19)

13.0 (49)

7.5 (46)

34 (95)

262 (131)

12.8 (53)

12.5 (10)

48 (53)

375 (70)

11.5 (66)

1.0 (156)

34 (95)

295 (112)

11.4 (71)

5.5 (69)

54 (39)

474 (22)

11.3 (72)

11.5 (12)

53 (40)

467 (28)

11.3 (74)

10.5 (17)

41 (77)

364 (76)

11.1 (76)

8.0 (37)

40 (80)

359 (83)

11.0 (78)

6.0 (61)

40 (80)

362 (79)

11.0 (79)

9.0 (28)

58 (32)

529 (8)

10.8 (82)

6.5 (56)

42 (72)

388 (67)

9.7 (106)

2.0 (135)

7 (185)

72 (190)

9.6 (110)

5.0 (78)

43 (69)

450 (37)

9.4 (115)

3.5 (108)

23 (128)

245 (147)

9.3 (117)

6.5 (56)

38 (85)

410 (60)

8.5 (130)

8.0 (37)

38 (85)

449 (39)

7.6 (145)

4.5 (91)

36 (89)

471 (25)

5.6 (170)

0.0 (179)

6 (188)

108 (188)

4.2 (182)

1.0 (156)

11 (179)

261 (133)

3.7 (185)

0.0 (179)

9 (181)

244 (148)

There’s always the thought Madubuike could be a one-hit wonder after watching his production spike so heavily in 2023. But the fact his numbers have increased every season seems to point to steady improvement rather than a blip on the radar.

The hope for the Ravens is he’s a younger version of Chris Jones. — Larry Holder, NFL senior writer

Required reading

(Photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)





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