New England Patriots

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 2: Matthew Judon #99 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates after the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 2, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Four years and $56 million? Value? What?

Yes, the V-word is applicable even with the Patriots’ most expensive contract on the first day of the NFL free agency tampering period, former Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon. Because when Bill Belichick signs close to the top of the market, he often bets on his program and the player’s potential to converge and deliver top-of-the-market performance at less than the full price. Stephon Gilmore is the best example of this.

The Patriots pounced on Gilmore at the start of 2017 free agency with a contract that averaged $13 million per season. His guaranteed money ranked him behind Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman, and Desmond Trufant at the time, and so did his past accomplishments. Delivering on the Patriots’ bet on future performance, Gilmore ended up outperforming all three of them on the field, with two First Team All-Pro honors and Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.

Last week, I pondered who could be the next Gilmore-esque signing for the Patriots. It could be one of their two tight ends, Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith. But Belichick actually paid those two right at the top of the market, granting them the two-highest guaranteed money totals ever at the position.

The Matthew Judon contract is an example of how Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seeks good value in his deals, even with a high-priced free agent. (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)

The Matthew Judon contract is an example of how Patriots head coach Bill Belichick seeks good value in his deals, even with a high-priced free agent. (Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)

The better comparison is Judon, who as of Wednesday ranks seventh in guaranteed money among outside linebackers ($30 million), and ninth in average earnings at $13.625 million. The idea is he delivers a similar impact to that of Shaquil Barrett ($17 million), Za’Darius Smith ($16.5 million), Bud Dupree ($16 million), or Leonard Floyd ($16 million), at a discount.

Judon is less of a pure pass-rusher than the above names, so his lower sack totals may have played a role in him commanding slightly less money. But he’s a well-rounded outside linebacker and could still be ascending at age 28. He’s coming off a Pro Bowl nod and should be put in position to succeed as a versatile three-down impact linebacker for Belichick.

As always, Miguel Benzan is the go-to guy for contract breakdowns on the Patriots. The overall numbers are four years, up to $56 million, and $32 million in practical guaranteed money. Here’s the full breakdown of Judon’s deal, with salaries, prorated signing bonuses, per-game roster bonuses, cap hits, and real cash:

Year Salary Signing Roster Cap Hit Cash
2021 $1M $4.5M $875K $6.375M $19.75M
2022 $11M $4.5M $1M $16.5M $12M
2023 $11M $4.5M $1M $16.5M $12M
2024 $9.5M $4.5M $1M $16.5M $10.5M

Since Judon only played 14 games in 2020, only 14 of his roster bonuses are categorized as “likely to be earned,” slightly dropping his 2021 cap hit from $6.5 million to $6.375 million. He can also earn up to $500,000 in incentives if he makes the All-Pro team from 2022-24, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. So there will be some added motivation for Judon to take his already-Pro-Bowl-caliber game to another level.

Say Judon goes on a similar path to that of Gilmore, and emerges as the NFL’s premier outside linebacker under Belichick. He’d be a relative bargain at cash values of $12 million in 2022 and 2023, and $10.5 million in 2024. The Patriots may end up in a similar spot to where they’re at with Gilmore, who may not be interested in playing for just $7 million in 2021. But it would be an easier situation to swallow if they get All-Pro production prior to that point.

It remains to be seen how Judon translates in New England. You’ve seen the Adalius Thomas comparisons. He’s no guarantee to have the same exact approach as Gilmore. But Belichick’s vision is the same as it was with Gilmore four years ago: get elite-level production at a little less than an elite price.

Scroll down for more notable free agents still available as of Wednesday.

MORE: Patriots Free Agency Tracker

Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @mattydsays. You can also email him at mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.