With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 91 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series kicks continues with linebacker Matthew Judon.
Name: Matthew Judon
Position: Outside linebacker/Defensive edge
Jersey number: 9
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6-foot-3, 260 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2024 (2025 UFA)
What is his 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 2 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.
What did his 2020 season look like? Judon was headed towards unrestricted free agency coming off the best season of his four-year career as a Raven: he had registered a team-leading 9.5 sacks in 17 games, and forced 5 fumbles. Baltimore, however, did not allow him to enter the open market and instead opted to use the franchise tag to keep the veteran defender in the fold for at least one more year. Judon quickly signed the $16.8 million tender offer to return to the Ravens for the 2020 season.
That season was a continuation of his 2019 campaign, with Judon again playing some strong and consistent football while being the team’s most disruptive defender for a second straight year. Appearing in 14 of 16 regular season games as well as both of Baltimore’s playoff contests, Judon was on the field for 635 of a possible 1,176 defensive snaps (54%). In total, he registered a combined 37 quarterback disruptions: Judon notched a team-leading 7 sacks as well as 17 hits and 13 hurries.
The 28-year-old also forced a fumble and registered a safety. He furthermore was productive as an edge-setter in the running game — finishing the season with 31 combined tackles versus the run — and was used in pass coverage from time to time. Even though Judon surrendered 7 receptions for 86 yards on 8 targets when dropping back, he was generally able to make quick tackles and keep yardage after the receptions at a minimum. However, Judon looked a lot better attacking downhill than playing in coverage.
While he generally had another productive season, Judon also faced some unfamiliar challenges during the 2020 season. After not missing a game due to medical reasons throughout his NFL career up until that point, he was forced to sit out a pair of contests because of Covid-19: the veteran linebacker had two separate stints on the Coronavirus reserve list, with the second of them costing him two games in early December. Judon also dealt with a calf injury and a non-Coronavirus illness.
All in all, though, his 2020 season was another successful one for Judon. With the Ravens deciding against using the franchise tag on him for a second consecutive offseason, he was able to finally cash in: two months after his season came to an end in the divisional playoff round, Judon signed a four-year free agency contract with the Patriots worth a total of $56 million.
What is his projected role? 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 give him some off-the-ball snaps to create favorable matchups as well.
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.
Does he have positional versatility? Judon, as mentioned above, saw most of his action in Baltimore on the line of scrimmage while being used 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 Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.
What is his salary cap situation? The aforementioned four-year contract Judon signed with the Patriots earlier this year has made him one of the top-20 edge defenders in the league in terms of average annual value. That said, his salary cap number for the 2021 season is comparatively small: Judon will hit the team’s books with only $6.38 million this year — just the ninth highest cap impact on the team. $5.5 million of that cap impact is guaranteed in the form of his $1 million salary and a $4.5 million signing bonus proration.
What is his roster outlook? Considering that the Patriots invested $30 million in full guarantees in him earlier this offseason, Judon is a lock to make the team come roster cutdown day. Of course, the financial aspect is only one piece of the puzzle: Judon is also expected to play a prominent role within the New England defense as a starter-level outside linebacker capable of being moved all over the formation and offering big-play upside alongside Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. If fully healthy, it would therefore not be a surprise to see him surpass his 54 percent playing time share from a year ago.