There was a time when a long-term contract between Lamar Jackson and the Ravens was viewed as a simple formality.
But after more than two years of unsuccessful — and often nonexistent — negotiations, general manager Eric DeCosta invited the superstar quarterback to go see what the rest of the NFL thinks of his value by using the non-exclusive franchise tag on Tuesday. The tag carries a $32.416 million salary for Jackson for the 2023 season, but it affords him the opportunity to negotiate and sign an offer sheet with another team beginning with the open of the new league year on March 15.
The Ravens would have up to five days to match a signed offer sheet or decline and receive two first-round picks from the competing team. Baltimore could also negotiate a trade for different compensation with a suitor, which would require Jackson to sign the tag before being dealt. To risk receiving such potentially underwhelming compensation for their 2019 NFL MVP and two-time Pro Bowl selection reflects what the Ravens project Jackson’s market to be relative to his request for a fully-guaranteed contract in line with the five-year, $230 million deal Cleveland awarded quarterback Deshaun Watson last March.
But it’s still a risk many believed the Ravens wouldn’t be willing to take, especially if another team were to structure a contract in a way that would make it extremely difficult to fit under their salary cap. Many expected Baltimore to use the exclusive franchise tag, which would have cost a projected $45 million and prohibited other teams from trying to sign Jackson without the Ravens facilitating a trade.
Instead, a game of contract chicken between the organization and its quarterback just became real.
“We will continue to negotiate in good faith with Lamar, and we are hopeful that we can strike a long-term deal that is fair to both Lamar and the Ravens,” DeCosta said in a statement released by the team. “Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come.”
As has been the case throughout the negotiating process with the Ravens, Jackson not employing an agent may complicate his ability to negotiate and sign an offer sheet with another team, especially considering his asking price and the two first-round picks that would be owed to Baltimore. Of course, a 26-year-old superstar quarterback coming this close to becoming a free agent is extremely rare territory and could still prompt a team to step outside its comfort zone to try to land Jackson, which is exactly what Browns owner Jimmy Haslam did with Watson last offseason.
If Jackson doesn’t find a team willing to meet his contract demands, it will be fascinating to see how he responds to receiving the non-exclusive tag — which is well below market value for a quarterback of his status — and whether he will be more open to signing a long-term deal with Baltimore. The NFL Players Association — which filed a collusion claim over the absence of fully-guaranteed contracts last November — has been advising the 2018 first-round pick during the negotiating process and couldn’t have been pleased seeing multiple quarterback-needy teams quickly leak their lack of interest in pursuing Jackson after Tuesday’s tag announcement. Should Jackson hold firm on his contract demands, he would be under no obligation to report to the Ravens at any point before signing the franchise tag.
Jackson now becomes the eighth player in franchise history to receive a franchise tag and first since outside linebacker Matthew Judon in 2020. All but Judon and offensive lineman Wally Williams (1998) eventually signed a long-term extension with the Ravens, a group including cornerback Chris McAlister, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, running back Ray Rice, and kicker Justin Tucker.
According to OverTheCap.com, Baltimore is just over $9 million above the salary cap with Jackson’s $32.416 million tag now counting, meaning DeCosta will need to make some combination of roster moves and contract adjustments to be compliant by the start of the new league year on March 15. Speaking at the NFL combine in Indianapolis last week, the executive expressed confidence in being prepared for any number of scenarios pertaining to the franchise tag for Jackson and its impact on the offseason.
“Obviously, I’m going to think about everything, but I don’t fear a lot of different things,” DeCosta said. “If you think about it and you plan for it, you discuss it, you talk about it, then what’s the point of fear? It’s not like we didn’t know we might be in this position. Last year at this time, we talked about it, so we’ve had a full year to really discuss all the different plans.
“We’ll make the right decision.”