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Patriots free agency analysis: Matthew Judon is a three-down addition to New England’s front seven

Related: Patriots sign linebacker Matthew Judon to four-year, $56 million contract

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

After losing some key contributors to free agency and the Coronavirus opt-out list during the offseason, the New England Patriots’ defensive front seven had a disappointing 2020 campaign. The outside linebacker position in particular struggled: setting the edge in the running game proved to be a challenge, as did converting quarterback pressure into positive plays.

Despite having young, high-upside players at their disposal, the Patriots therefore needed to upgrade the position group. They did just that when they agreed to sign Matthew Judon to a four-year contract on the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering period on Monday.

Hard facts

Name: Matthew Judon

Position: Outside linebacker/Defensive edge

Opening day age: 29

Size: 6-foot-3, 260 pounds

Contract: 4 years, $54.38 million ($30 million guaranteed)

Experience

Even though he spent his college career at Division-II’s Grand Valley State, Judon put himself in a position to hear his name called during the NFL’s 2016 draft: the Baltimore Ravens selected him in the fifth round and installed him as a rotational depth member of their outside linebacker group. After already playing 30 percent of defensive snaps as a rookie and registering four sacks from the edge, Judon took over a starter-level role in Year Two and never looked back.

He remained a prominent member of the team’s defense throughout the rest of his tenure in Baltimore. Including the 2020 season, which he spent under the franchise tag, Judon appeared in 76 regular season games and four playoff contests for the organization; he registered 35.5 sacks, forced eight fumbles and had two recoveries, and notched a safety. He also was impressively durable and missed only four games over the course of his career — two of them last season due to separate stints on the Covid-19/Reserve list.

Along the way, Judon also was named to a pair of Pro Bowls while finishing as Baltimore’s sack leader in each of the last two seasons. All in all, he therefore was a very good draft pick for the Ravens and integral member of the team’s consistently good defense.

Patriots preview

What is his projected role in New England? Judon was used primarily as an outside linebacker during his time in Baltimore, and should see most of his action in this capacity as well with the Patriots. As such, he would become the team’s number one player on the edge — one who would rarely leave the field due to his abilities to keep running plays from reaching the corner on early downs and rush the quarterback in passing situations. That said, it would also not be a surprise to see New England use him like Kyle Van Noy in 2019 by giving him some off-the-ball snaps to create favorable matchups as well.

Where does he fit on the edge linebacker depth chart? With John Simon and Shilique Calhoun both headed towards unrestricted free agency, Judon would become the elder statesman among the Patriots’ outside linebackers — and the second most experienced player in the linebacker room period behind Dont’a Hightower. He is expected to be the number one option on the edge alongside Chase Winovich, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings.

Does he have positional versatility? Judon, as mentioned above, saw most of his action in Baltimore on the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker. That being said, his size — he is listed at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds — also makes him a candidate to play an off-the-ball role in the box. If the Patriots opt to use him that way, he would essentially become a hybrid move linebacker in the mold of Hightower and, to a lesser degree, Uche and Jennings.

What is his special teams value? Even though he played over 500 special teams snaps over his five seasons as a Raven, Judon’s kicking game value should not be overestimated after he played just 132 combined snaps in the game’s third phase in 2019 and 2020 — all of them on the punt return and field goal/extra point blocking units. The expectation is that New England will not suddenly turn him into a core special teamer, but rather keep using him only sparingly.

What does it mean for New England’s salary cap? Even though his contract is the biggest among the Patriots’ free agents signed so far, Matthew Judon’s salary cap number in 2021 is actually a reasonable $6.38 million — seventh highest on the team at the moment. While that number will climb to $16.5 million next season, the expected increase in the league-wide cap will make back-loading the deal a good move from the team’s point of view. Likewise, it also means that New England will stay financially flexible.

What does it mean for New England’s draft outlook? Despite Judon being added to the mix, the Patriots investing in linebacker depth during the draft cannot categorically be ruled out. Sure, the edge appears to be well set with him, Winovich and Uche as the projected top-three, but the off-the-ball group would still benefit from adding another high-level talent to possibly groom as Dont’a Hightower’s successor.

One-sentence verdict: After the Patriots’ defensive edge was exploited repeatedly in 2020, adding Judon gives the team some much-needed stoutness.

Poll

How would you grade the Patriots’ decision to sign Matthew Judon?

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  • 66%
    A
    (2107 votes)
  • 27%
    B
    (862 votes)
  • 4%
    C
    (129 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (27 votes)
  • 1%
    F
    (38 votes)
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