Beginning with a salary cap that’s yet to be set for the 2021 season, the Ravens face no shortage of questions in their quest to shape a roster ready to advance to the Super Bowl after two straight divisional-round exits.
But there’s “certainly a chance” this offseason could bring a lucrative contract extension for star quarterback and 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, according to general manager Eric DeCosta. Jackson is entering the final year of a rookie contract scheduled to pay him just $1.77 million in base salary, but the Ravens do hold a fifth-year option for the 2018 first-round pick that’s sure to be exercised, making the question of an extension much more about “when” than “if” at this stage. Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, the star quarterbacks of the 2017 draft class, received new contracts before the start of the 2020 season, which would put Jackson in line for a long-term deal by the time the Ravens kick off the 2021 campaign in September.
“I will be talking to Lamar probably within the next 10 days or so,” DeCosta said in a video call with local media Monday morning. “He’s down in Florida. We’ve got a great relationship. He’s got a great relationship with this organization. He’s a very easy person to talk to and certainly deserves a contract. He has played phenomenal football over the last couple of years, and our intention and my intention is to keep him in Baltimore for many, many years.”
What negotiating timetable or type of commitment it will require remains to be seen after Jackson led the Ravens to the playoffs for the third straight year — and to their first postseason win in six years — and just became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. The 24-year-old’s passing numbers did slip from his historic MVP campaign, but he still posted a 99.3 passer rating and 26 touchdown passes, the fourth-highest single-season total in team history. And he’s been the leading rusher for arguably the greatest ground attack in league history with the Ravens having rushed for well over 6,000 yards over these last two seasons.
Given the extensions awarded to Mahomes and Watson, Jackson would figure to ask for at least $40 million per season. The structure of any potential contract would be interesting with Jackson possessing such a unique playing style and having not employed a traditional agent since being drafted out of Louisville three years ago.
There’s also the matter of the salary cap with Jackson currently scheduled to carry a modest figure of just over $3 million in 2021. A new deal could increase that number and leave DeCosta with even less room to maneuver with the cap expected to decrease from its 2020 level of $198.2 million because of the significant revenue drain from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a development the Ravens couldn’t have possibly imagined a year ago when hoping to maximize the rest of an advantageous window that comes with a standout quarterback playing on a rookie contract.
“It’s such a strange phenomenon because we’re actually probably 11th or 12th best in the league in terms of salary cap room, and we anticipate that number being somewhere between $15 and $20 million,” DeCosta said. “However, that’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, and that’s based on the projection of between $175 million and $180 million of [total] salary cap room. We like the position that we’re in. I think there are about 14 or 15 teams this year that are actually over the salary cap. We see that as an opportunity for the club to really improve, but it’s an unusual dynamic.”
In addition to Jackson and the 16 pending unrestricted free agents who saw game action this season, the Ravens are approaching decisions on standout tight end Mark Andrews and two-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who are both entering the final year of their rookie contracts.
A 2019 Pro Bowl selection, Andrews has caught 20 touchdowns over his first three seasons and has served as Jackson’s most consistent target in the passing game. Meanwhile, Brown has earned Pro Bowl honors first as a right tackle in 2019 and as a left tackle after filling in for the injured Ronnie Stanley over the second half of 2020. Brown’s performance protecting Jackson’s blindside only enhanced his value, which will make it even more difficult for Baltimore to retain his services beyond 2021. The Ravens inked Stanley to a five-year, $98.75 million extension in late October, a deal DeCosta said took nearly a year to finalize.
“We’ll continue to engage in talks with all of our good, young players and try and sign as many guys as we can, and sometimes, you just can’t get a deal done,” DeCosta said. “It’s great when you can, but sometimes you can’t. I learned this from Ozzie [Newsome] — you can’t sign everybody. That’s a challenge, but we will try and keep as many young players as we can.
“We believe in being a strong offensive line. We want to have the best offensive line we can, and Orlando had a great year this year. We are a tight end-centric offense and Mark Andrews, in my opinion, is one of the better tight ends in the entire NFL. He’s a Pro Bowl tight end, so we’d be foolish to not want to try and keep him. Those discussions will start up at some point. Hopefully, we can make progress and get some deals done.”
In other contract news, DeCosta confirmed the Ravens would be moving on from four-time Pro Bowl long snapper Morgan Cox after 11 seasons. The 34-year-old is scheduled to become a free agent and was recently informed by the organization that Baltimore would go with the younger — and cheaper — Nick Moore in 2021. The move breaks up the specialist trio of Cox, kicker Justin Tucker, and punter Sam Koch that had been together since the Super Bowl XLVII season in 2012.
Moore, 28, spent this past season on the practice squad and filled in for one game when Cox was placed on the reserve-COVID-19 list in late November.
“We’ve been blessed for many, many years now with ‘The Wolfpack,’ with Morgan, with Sam, with Justin to have probably the best combination of punter, long snapper, and kicker in the league,” DeCosta said. “Things change, unfortunately. It’s a tough part of this business. But Morgan, his class, his performance, just everything about him, will be missed and cherished in many ways, and I will think of him as the best long snapper in Baltimore Ravens history.
“As good as he is as a long snapper, he’s a better teammate and a better guy.”