On Tuesday, the Ravens’ two-week window to use the franchise tag on Pro Bowl defensive lineman Justin Madubuike will open. With an estimated 2024 price tag of $21 million, it would likely be the most expensive move of their offseason. It would also be the wisest.

Scarcity creates urgency, and the Ravens, in their ongoing Super Bowl quest, do not have either the time to find Madubuike’s replacement or any assurance that he can be capably replaced. Three-plus weeks from the start of the NFL’s new league year, he is the most important pending free agent in a Ravens class that also includes Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Queen, Pro Bowl right guard Kevin Zeitler and resurgent outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.

“We’ll have those decisions made in the coming weeks,” general manager Eric DeCosta said earlier this month at the Ravens’ season-ending news conference. “We’ll know what’s best for us to do. It’s something that we haven’t just started thinking about, obviously. It’s something we’ve been thinking about.”

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) looks down during warmups before the game against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Tagging Madubuike wouldn’t guarantee his return next season. If the Ravens use the nonexclusive tag, as expected, interested teams could still present him an offer sheet. But the cost of doing business with a tagged player is usually prohibitive: The Ravens would have the right to match any offer, and if not, they’d receive a pair of first-round picks from the team that signed Madubuike.

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The Ravens had hoped to sign him to an extension before his breakout 2023. Their impasse last offseason will make negotiations this offseason even more challenging; according to Pro Football Focus’ projections, Madubuike’s next contract could be worth an estimated $92 million ($23 million annually).

But as the Ravens’ drawn-out negotiations with quarterback Lamar Jackson proved last offseason, there is value in keeping contract discussions alive. And there is value in making Madubuike one of the NFL’s best-paid defensive linemen, if only for one more year in Baltimore.

Even if Madubuike’s 2023 season ends up as a high-water mark for his career, they are highs that typically warrant significant investments. He led all interior defensive linemen in sacks (a career-high 13); recorded at least a half-sack in 11 consecutive games, tied for the longest such streak in single-season NFL history; and started all 17 games for one of the NFL’s best defenses, finishing sixth in defensive snaps.

“It’s not surprising,” coach John Harbaugh said in December. “You saw it all through the years, but you saw it in training camp — we all did. He works hard every day. He’s humble, he’s determined, he’s confident, and he wants to be the best player he can be. He plays for his team. There’s nothing about him that isn’t an A-plus, and to see him have that kind of success, that’s awesome.”

Madubuike’s pass-rushing talent alone would make him indispensable. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, his 64 quarterback pressures in 2023 tied for the second most of any Ravens player since 2016, behind only Clowney last season. Over the past two years, he also posted the Ravens’ third- and sixth-best pressure-to-sack rates in a single season (22.9% in 2022, 20.3% in 2023). Quite simply, the Ravens’ prolific pass rush last year was notably better with Madubuike than without him.

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His value extends to the Ravens’ run defense, too. With Madubuike on the field in 2023, according to TruMedia, the Ravens ranked sixth in success rate, 11th in expected points added per play against designed runs and 12th in yards before contact per rush. Without Madubuike, their run defense ranked 20th, 20th and 24th, respectively.

Madubuike’s well-rounded contributions last season — a 14.6% pass rush win rate and 9.9% run stop rate, according to PFF — put him in elite company, not only among the NFL’s top interior pass rushers …

… but also among the Ravens’ best-ever seasons at the position.

After a modest start in Baltimore, Madubuike’s career is on a rare trajectory. His 21.5 sacks are the ninth most by an interior defensive lineman over their first four seasons this century, according to TruMedia, not far behind stalwarts like Ndamukong Suh (27.5) and Chris Jones (25.5). Only 10 other players at the position since 2020 have racked up 20 sacks by Year 4.

And there’s reason to believe Madubuike, one of the Ravens’ most durable players, can sustain his production, if not improve on it. His pressure rate has improved each of the past three seasons, according to NGS, from 5.1% to 6.5% to an elite 13.1%. His average get-off time has sped up, too; he needed only 0.94 seconds after the snap to cross the line of scrimmage in 2023, one of the NFL’s better marks and a tick faster than in 2021 (1.09 seconds) and 2022 (0.98 seconds).

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At age 26, Madubuike could be entering his athletic prime just as he’s starting to master the game’s more technical aspects. Even more impressive than his 2023 sack total was the diversity of his sack catalog. Madubuike got to the Arizona Cardinals’ Joshua Dobbs with a spin move as an interior rusher and to the Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill with a bull rush as an outside rusher. He ran down the Houston Texans’ C.J. Stroud with surprising open-field speed. He forced a fumble on the Detroit Lions’ Jared Goff as the crasher in a tackle-tackle stunt. He wrapped up the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes after beating Kansas City’s left guard with a two-handed swipe and a rip move. He racked up countless more sacks and hits with effort and awareness.

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“He works on moves,” Ravens outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith, who also works with the team’s defensive linemen, said in November. “You’ve seen ‘Beeks’ get a sack on the spin. You’ve seen Beeks get a sack on the cross-chop. You’ve seen Beeks get a sack on the chop-drive. He’s worked on his skills and basically took what he did last year and brought that forward. …

“When you hear ‘dawg’ — we throw that around again a lot, [that] cliché — Beeks is really the kind of dude that is absolutely trying to knock your head off every play. There is no other way to put it.”

Madubuike has called Baltimore “home,” but he told reporters at the Pro Bowl that “business is business.” For now, though, the Ravens are the only team in the Madubuike business. A franchise tag would probably keep it that way. Yes, the cost would be steep. But the Ravens are here, trying to plot out a future together, in part because Madubuike already proved he was worth more than anyone imagined.

“I told him when he was Year 2, pretty much, that he could be an All-Pro,” former Ravens and current Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Calais Campbell, a mentor to Madubuike, told The Baltimore Banner in an interview late last season. “So now I think it’s the first time he gets to be ‘the guy,’ and you see it. He’s dominant. I mean, every week, he’s just making a big play to help win the ballgame. ... You just see his potential. And I think that now you realize in Year 4, like, ‘OK, it’s time to become the person. It’s time to be who you want to be.’ ”

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Baltimore Banner reporter Giana Han contributed to this story.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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