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The case for and against retaining Ravens’ key defensive free agents

Making an argument on both sides for re-signing some of the Ravens’ notable defensive free agents

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Following a gut-wrenching defeat in the AFC championship game, the focus will now shift to the offseason for the Baltimore Ravens. Albeit much sooner than everyone hoped, the Ravens will have many questions to answers in the coming weeks and months.

One of the most important items will be free agency, where the Ravens are set to have more than 20 incumbent players potentially hit the open market. Which of their free agents the Ravens prioritize re-signing over others will be crucial in determining what the team looks like moving forward.

Below are some of the team’s most notable upcoming free agents on the defensive side of the ball and we’ll make the case for and the case against retaining each of them.

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DL Justin Madubuike

The case for: Madubuike was everything the Ravens could have hoped for and then some in his fourth career season. The 2020 third-round pick anchored the defensive line and posted career-best numbers across the board. Madubuike had a team-high 13 sacks, which led all interior defensive lineman in the league, with a whopping 33 quarterback hits and 33 pressures.

Additionally, he totaled 56 combined tackles, 16 quarterback knockdowns, and two forced fumbles. Madubuike played all 17 games and 65% of the team’s defensive snaps, which were both the highest marks of his career thus far.

Having a defensive lineman who has double-digit sack upside, can dominate individual matchups against opposing guards, and draw double teams is a game-changer for a defense. Madubuike checks off these boxes and is fresh off his first ever Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods.

The case against: Madubuike will certainly carry the highest price tag of any Ravens’ pending free agent this offseason. He could demand upwards of $20 million annually on the open market and if the Ravens choose to franchise tag him, his one-year cost is projected to be around that number as well.

To keep Madubuike, the Ravens will have to do some cap space maneuvering and it’d likely force them to trim elsewhere. The cost of keeping Madubuike could be otherwise retaining multiple other free agents.

For as good as he was in 2023, Madubuike was previously just solid-to-good through three seasons before breaking out this past year. However, it’s not clear yet if he can sustain such high level of play moving forward or if this season was an outlier of sorts.

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ILB Patrick Queen

The case for: Queen’s ascent from last season manifested into 2023, where the former first-round pick put together a career-best campaign. The LSU product was an impact player on defense throughout the season and finished with 133 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, and two forced turnovers.

More importantly, Queen continued to clean up a lot of the mistakes that plagued him in his first few seasons. He was better in pass coverage and tackling in the open field, while remaining a disruptive force against the run. Queen was rewarded with his first ever All-Pro recognition, like Madubuike, and Pro Bowl appearance as well.

For all the talk about the devaluation of the middle linebacker position in today’s NFL, the tandem of Queen and Roquan Smith was the heartbeat of the Ravens’ top-ranked defense in 2023. Those two work extremely well together and there would definitely be a drop off from Queen to say, Trenton Simpson, in the short term.

The case against: Like Madubuike, Queen earned himself a lot of money with a breakout season in 2023. The Ravens don’t have a ton of cap flexibility and finding a way to retain Queen, fiscally speaking, will be a challenge.

While Queen did play at a high level this past season and was an integral part of the team’s defense, it’s difficult to pay top dollar for two players at one position. The Ravens already made Smith the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history just one year ago. The opportunity cost of now making Queen one of the top-paid linebackers also could be significant.

When the Ravens drafted Simpson in the third round last year, it was viewed as either an immediate or future succession plan at the position. They were likely already budgeting for not being able to retain Queen beyond the 2023 season. While matching Queen’s All-Pro level play would be a tall task, Simpson does have similar athleticism and untapped upside.

When you’re paying top money to cornerstone players, you have to trim and go cheaper in some areas. The No. 2 inside linebacker spot profiles as one of these spots.

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OLB Jadeveon Clowney

The case for: After signing with the Ravens at a lower-than-expected price tag late in the offseason, Clowney exceeded expectations in a big way. He wound up becoming a vital piece on the Ravens’ defense as both a pass rusher and run stopper on the edge.

Clowney played a full 17 games, just the second time in his career not missing a game, and handled just shy of 60% of the team’s defensive snaps. The former No. 1 overall pick finished second on the defense in sacks with 9.5, which matched the highest total of his career, and he added 19 quarterback hits, 23 pressures, and 43 combined tackles.

Clowney was one of the more consistent players on defense and his value showed especially in the absences of fellow edge rushers Odafe Oweh, who missed multiple games, and David Ojabo — who wound up missing nearly the entire season. The veteran proved he still has plenty left in the tank.

The case against: Clowney’s productive 2023 campaign, where he matched or approached many of his career-best numbers from the mid-2010s, most certainly will earn him a pay raise on the open market.

While his contributions this past season were valuable for the Ravens’ defense, it’s worth wondering of Clowney could continue to produce at such a level. Prior to 2023, he missed multiple games with injury in every season dating back to 2017. So, expecting another full season of clean health is a risky proposition.

Can the Ravens afford to pay Clowney his market value? They may be able to make it work but it won’t be easy. The Ravens also still have Oweh and Ojabo waiting in the wings and need to find out exactly what they have in the two youngsters, especially Oweh as he enters Year 4.

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OLB Kyle Van Noy

The case for: Van Noy was signed by the Ravens in late September to add depth alongside Clowney and company in the edge rusher room. Like Clowney, he wound up playing an integral role on defense and wildly exceeded expectations.

The 10-year veteran finished just behind Clowney in sacks with nine total, which was the highest mark of his career easily. He also had nine tackles-for-loss, nine quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, and 12 pressures. Most impressively is he did all this in just 14 games while playing under 500 defensive snaps on the year.

At age 32, Van Noy displayed plenty of pass-rushing juice and was a seamless fit on the Ravens’ defense from both an on-field perspective and as a locker room personality and voice. Van Noy’s consistency and stable presence was a much-needed addition to an edge rusher room that lacked it early in the season.

The case against: Similar to his aforementioned counterpart, Van Noy’s market value almost certainly rose after this season. He’ll no longer be sitting on his couch with little-to-no suitors wanting to sign him. The cost of retaining him again could make it difficult for a Ravens team without a ton of cap flexibility as is.

It’s fair to question if Van Noy could replicate his pass-rushing production again given this past season was a bit of an outlier compared to his previous track record in some categories. While he showed no signs of decline, Van Noy will be going on 33 years old come this next season.

As mentioned above, the Ravens will again be banking on some growth from Oweh and Ojabo, and also have rising sophomore Tavius Robinson potentially ready for an increased role in 2024. Keeping both Van Noy and Clowney seems like a longshot proposition.

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S Geno Stone

The case for: Stone had quietly become an underrated rotational defensive back and fill-in starter for the Ravens over the past couple of seasons. He entered 2023 as a rotational safety on the depth chart but wound up again stepping into a starting role after Marcus Williams suffered an injury in Week 1.

Stone played over 900 total defensive snaps and produced career-high numbers across the board. His pass coverage skills were especially prevalent as Stone recorded seven interceptions, which ranked second in the NFL and first among all safeties. Stone forced six takeaways through the first half of the year and had a four-game streak with interceptions.

The former seventh-round pick has now become an established playmaker and is valuable for the Ravens’ secondary. His price tag undoubtedly went up also with a career-best season in 2023 but he’s a valuable defensive piece for the Ravens. It never hurts to have too many talented defensive backs but it can certainly hurt to not have enough.

The case against: Stone’s contributions in 2023 were important for the Ravens’ historic success on the defensive side of the ball. However, his production and impact seemed to decline as the season progress. He had just one interception from November 12 onward.

With Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton both in the lineup playing full-time snaps, Stone’s exact role can become murky. Stone joins Williams in the backend when the Ravens play Hamilton at the nickel, which they’ve done a lot, but that’s likely not the role they want Hamilton playing full-time moving forward.

Stone doesn’t necessarily make a significant impact in the run game or as a one-on-one coverage defender in pass coverage. His high interceptions total from this past season may be a bit fluky or not reputable, but the price he’ll demand in free agency likely won’t reflect that.

Other free agents not listed:

  • CB Arthur Maulet
  • CB Rock Ya-Sin
  • CB Ronald Darby
  • DB Ar’Darius Washington
  • ILB Malik Harrison