Ravens make big splash with Justin Madubuike extension: Could there be more once free agency starts?

Ravens make big splash with Justin Madubuike extension: Could there be more once free agency starts?

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — By reaching a four-year, $98 million deal with Justin Madubuike on Friday, the Baltimore Ravens showed faith in their Pro Bowl defensive tackle and provided hope of the AFC runners-up making a key move in free agency, perhaps at running back.

The timing of the Madubuike deal is as big as the contract itself. Just three days before the start of free agency’s legal tampering period, the Ravens gained an estimated $10 million in cap space and will not carry a $22.1 million cap hit from him being on the franchise tag.

This doesn’t guarantee that Baltimore will use the additional cap room to be aggressive early in free agency. The Ravens typically aren’t among the teams who make splash moves in the first few days.

But the Madubuike deal gives the team the flexibility to add a proven playmaker in the backfield or upgrade the offensive line if the team wanted to do so. The Ravens don’t have a No. 1 running back because J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are free agents. The extra cap space could be used on a member of the best free agent running back class in recent memory, which includes Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley.

Before the deal, Baltimore was $10 million over the cap and needed to make roster moves to get cap compliant by the start of the league year on Wednesday. Now, any move — a cap cut, a pay reduction or a contract restructuring — provides cap space to help fortify a roster that has 23 free agents.

The Ravens could’ve played it safe with Madubuike and let him play this season under the franchise tag. He led defensive tackles with a career-best 13 sacks last season, but only had 8.5 sacks in his first three seasons combined. Baltimore could’ve used the tag to give him one more season to prove himself. But the extension shows how much the Ravens believe in him, and how much they are willing to invest in homegrown talent. Some of Baltimore’s biggest deals over the past five years have been with players they drafted, from Lamar Jackson to Ronnie Stanley to Marlon Humphrey to Mark Andrews.

Madubuike delivered one of the best recent seasons by an interior defensive lineman, recording 11.5 of his 13 sacks when lining up on the interior of the defensive line. That’s the fourth-most by an interior defensive lineman since NFL Next Gen Stats started tracking this stat in 2016.

The Ravens haven’t had a player reach double-digit sacks since Terrell Suggs in 2017. Baltimore hasn’t had this much sack production by a defensive tackle since Trevor Pryce had 13 in 2006. Madubuike certainly deserved this type of a deal after a season as spectacular as this past one.

There are questions whether the Ravens can be a special defense again after defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald left to become the Seattle Seahawks head coach. Last season, Baltimore became the first defense in the Super Bowl era to lead the league in scoring defense, sacks and turnovers.

But with Madubuike back, Baltimore has an All-Pro foundation up the middle, along with linebacker Roquan Smith and strong safety Kyle Hamilton. And his new deal can allow the Ravens to make a move that helps Jackson and the offense out, too.

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