OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Baltimore Ravens confirmed Friday they were unable to reach a contract extension with quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is not represented by an agent, putting the brakes on the most high-profile talks in the NFL until after the season, and increasing the scrutiny every time Jackson takes the field.
When Jackson fires a game-winning touchdown pass, the reaction will include how he increased his value and how the Ravens dropped the ball by not getting an extension done. When Jackson commits a turnover or takes a big hit, some will argue he should have signed a deal before the season and that he cost himself millions.
“He doesn’t really talk about it, so it hasn’t really been a distraction,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said.
The Ravens’ focus is winning the AFC North and becoming the NFL’s latest team to go from last place to first. It has happened in 17 of the last 19 seasons, including last year when the Cincinnati Bengals went from a four-win season to the Super Bowl.
Once the season is over, Baltimore’s challenge shifts back to getting Jackson signed long-term. But in the meantime, questions abound.
Will Jackson get the franchise tag next year?
This is where the Ravens and Jackson are headed unless they can find a compromise, although the two sides have been working on that for the last 20 months without an agreement.
March 7 is the deadline for teams to use the franchise tag. If the sides can’t reach a deal by then, the Ravens would have to use the tag on a quarterback for the first time in the franchise’s 27-year history to keep Jackson from becoming an unrestricted free agent. Jackson would make $45 million in 2023 if he plays under the exclusive franchise tag.
This is rare territory for franchise quarterbacks. In the previous 10 offseasons, only two have been given the tag: Kirk Cousins (2016 and 2017), who was with Washington at the time, and Dallas’ Dak Prescott (2020 and 2021), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Prescott eventually signed a long-term extension with the Cowboys while Cousins hit free agency and signed a landmark deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
History suggests Baltimore has time to avoid placing the tag on Jackson. A decade ago, quarterback Joe Flacco declined the Ravens’ offer on a contract extension entering his fifth year, just like Jackson. After Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl win, the team signed him to a record-setting deal 25 days later (and three days before the tag deadline).
If the Ravens are unable to reach an agreement with Jackson by March, they know they have contractual control over Jackson for the next two seasons with the tag.
How much of a risk is Jackson taking?
Jackson acknowledged that it was “a pretty big risk” last season, as well, and that anything can happen. “God forbid the wrong thing happens,” he said.
But in 2020, Prescott suffered a significant ankle injury while playing under the franchise tag and missed the final 11 games of the season. And the Cowboys still gave him a four-year, $160 million contract the next offseason.
The biggest concern is Jackson’s style of play, which includes breaking long runs and eluding pass-rushers. Robert Griffin III, who also was a dual-threat quarterback, was never the same after he injured his right knee at the end of his rookie season in 2012.
Jackson has been durable during his first four seasons, despite taking an NFL-high 737 hits. The only time Jackson missed any games because of injury was at the end of last season, when he was sidelined the last four games with a bruised right ankle after dropping back and throwing a pass.
The monetary gamble is this: Five quarterbacks have signed for at least $150 million in guaranteed money since Jackson was eligible for an extension. Jackson is guaranteed $23.016 million this season under his fifth-year option.
But waiting has been a profitable strategy so far for Jackson. Since he became eligible for an extension last year, five quarterbacks have signed deals that have exceeded $150 million in guaranteed money, and the top average per year for quarterbacks has jumped from $45 million (Patrick Mahomes) to $50.3 million (Aaron Rodgers).
How much of a risk are the Ravens taking?
The only gamble by not signing Jackson before the season is the top quarterback value escalating even more.
According to a Jackson tweet, the Ravens haven’t offered him $250 million guaranteed. Deshaun Watson, who was facing 22 lawsuits at the time that alleged sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions, received $230 million guaranteed from the Cleveland Browns in March.
The last two franchise quarterbacks to sign contract extensions since Watson — Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson — both landed significantly less guaranteed money, which adds to Baltimore’s perceived argument that Watson’s deal is an outlier. Murray received $189.5 million guaranteed, and Wilson got $165 million.
By not reaching a long-term deal with Jackson now, the Ravens are essentially betting that Joe Burrow and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert won’t reset the quarterback market. Both 2020 first-round picks are eligible for extensions after this season.
The Bengals and Chargers are known for being historically conservative spenders. But the Bengals have signed their last two franchise quarterbacks to extensions (Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton), and the Chargers ranked fifth in cash spending this year. It wouldn’t be surprising if Burrow and/or Herbert signed long-term deals by this time next year. The big question is whether either will surpass Watson in guaranteed money.
What are the chances of the Ravens trading Jackson next offseason?
The Ravens would only consider dealing Jackson if they felt there was zero chance of finalizing a long-term deal. It’s difficult to think Baltimore would let Jackson go the Cousins route — playing two seasons under the tag before letting him hit free agency in 2025 — and be content with getting a third-round compensatory pick in return.
This offseason, the Broncos traded two first-round picks and two second-rounders to the Seahawks to acquire 33-year-old Russell Wilson. Imagine what the Ravens could get for Jackson, who doesn’t turn 26 until Jan. 7.
The Ravens have one of the NFL’s top backups in Tyler Huntley, who nearly led Baltimore to upsets over the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and the Green Bay Packers last season. Huntley, 24, is a restricted free agent next offseason, so the Ravens have to make a decision on him, as well.
But trading Jackson would be an unprecedented move. There have been nine trades involving NFL MVP quarterbacks — from Roman Gabriel in 1969 to Matt Ryan this year — and none of the QBs were dealt when they were under the age of 30.
Throughout the negotiations, Ravens officials and Jackson have expressed a belief a deal will get done.
But Friday’s news means that optimism is on hold for now.