The Baltimore Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson are approaching territory neither expected to be in when a contract extension wasn't signed before the start of the 2022 regular season. Events related to Jackson spraining the PCL in his left knee during a Dec. 4 game against the Broncos, which sidelined him for the rest of the season, has prompted wide-spread speculation that he may not be a member of the Ravens next season.
Head coach John Harbaugh expressing frustration that Jackson didn't return to action close to the originally reported three-to-four week recovery prognosis opened the door to questions whether his absence may have been contract-related. Jackson, who represents himself, took the unusual step of releasing details about his injury and recovery in a Twitter post last Friday.
His social media update only added fuel to the fire about a rift between Jackson and Ravens. On Fox's Saturday pregame show, Super Bowl-winning head coach Sean Payton was critical of the tweet and predicted that Jackson had played his last game with the Ravens. Former quarterback Michael Vick downplayed the severity of Jackson's injury by suggesting on the show that Jackson should put a brace on his knee and play because of the Ravens being in the playoffs.
Several hours after Baltimore's 24-17 wild card playoff loss to the Bengals on Sunday night, in which Jackson didn't travel with the team to Cincinnati, he posted the following cryptic message on his Instagram page:
"When you have something good, you don't play with it. You don't take chances losing it. You don't neglect it. When you have something good, you pour into it. You appreciate it. Because when you take care of something good, that good thing takes care of you too."
Ravens intend to negotiate long-term deal
ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III, who was Jackson's backup in Baltimore for three seasons, revealed on "Monday Night Countdown" that Jackson wasn't with the team because he was sick. He also called the relationship between the Ravens and Jackson salvageable.
For what it's worth, several prominent Ravens, including tight end Mark Andrews, defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley came to Jackson's defense either vouching for his health status or advocating for him to remain in Baltimore long-term.
NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported that Jackson's injury and the surrounding drama haven't changed Baltimore's plans. The intent is to resume negotiations with Jackson since the Ravens have been eliminated from the playoffs, hoping a long-term deal can be reached.
According to multiple reports, Jackson turned down a six-year contract (presumably a five-year extension offer) worth nearly $250 million with $133 million fully guaranteed before cutting off negotiations shortly before the regular season started. The offer had the league's second-highest average yearly salary surpassing Russell Wilson's $49 million per year. It also had the second-most money ever fully guaranteed in an NFL contract.
The exact amount of the total guarantee wasn't disclosed at the time. It was believed to have at least been on par with Wilson getting 67.3% of his deal guaranteed. This would put Jackson's total guarantee in the $170 million neighborhood at a minimum.
Jackson chose to play on his $23.016 million fifth-year option because he was adamant about getting a fully guaranteed contract. The Browns gave Deshaun Watson a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract in connection with his trade from the Browns to the Texans last March. The Watson deal is an anomaly as subsequent quarterback deals, particularly Kyler Murray and Wilson's $46.1 million and $49 million per year respective five-year extensions with the Cardinals and Broncos, weren't fully guaranteed.
Jackson's looming free agency
Jackson is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. That's provided he isn't given a transition or franchise tag during the 15-day designation period, which runs from Feb. 21 to March 7, or a long-term deal is worked out before the 2023 league year begins on March 15.
There won't be much progress on a new Jackson deal if both parties remain firmly entrenched in their positions on a fully guaranteed contract. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was critical of Watson's deal shortly after he signed during the NFL owners meetings at the end of last March.
"I wish they hadn't guaranteed the whole contract," Bisciotti said. "I don't know that he should've been the first guy to get a full guaranteed contract. To me, that's something that's groundbreaking, and it'll make negotiations harder with others." He also added, "But it doesn't necessarily mean that we have to play that game, you know? We shall see."
There is no way the Ravens are letting Jackson hit the open market. At best, the Ravens would receive a compensatory third-round pick in 2024 with Jackson leaving in free agency. The Falcons dealt an aging Matt Ryan to the Colts for a 2022 third-round pick in last March.
Non-exclusive or franchise designation options
The transition tag isn't a viable option for the Ravens, either. They would only have a right to match an offer sheet from another team. There wouldn't be any draft choice compensation if they didn't exercise their matching rights.
It's really a question of whether the Ravens will use the non-exclusive or franchise designation on Jackson absent a long-term deal before 4 p.m. ET on March 7. The non-exclusive tag allows a player to negotiate with other NFL teams, but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.
The non-exclusive franchise tag for quarterbacks projects to 14.42% of salary cap. If the 2023 salary cap is set at $225 million, the quarterback number should be $32.445 million.
The non-exclusive tag could make the Ravens vulnerable to an offer sheet from a quarterback-needy team that might be unpalatable. An offer sheet that's fully guaranteed would be the best way to deter the Ravens from matching.
The two first-round picks for Jackson would be considered an inadequate return relative to the trade compensation for Watson and Wilson last offseason. The Texans dealt Watson and a 2024 sixth-round pick for 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round picks, a 2022 fourth-round pick, a 2023 third-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round pick. The Broncos acquired Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick from the Seahawks for multiple players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock), 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, 2022 and 2023 second-round picks and a 2022 fifth-round pick. Non-quarterbacks, such as safety Jamal Adams, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, have been traded for more than two first-round picks in recent years.
Four of the last five times quarterbacks have been designated as franchise players, the exclusive tag has been used. The exclusive designation particularly makes the most sense if the Ravens deem signability to be an obstacle that will be too difficult to overcome where maximizing trade compensation is the objective. A player cannot negotiate with other teams on the exclusive franchise tag.
There's a different calculation with the exclusive version. The exclusive franchise number will be the average of the top five 2023 quarterback salaries (salary cap numbers with some minor adjustments) at the end of the upcoming restricted free agent signing period on April 21. Initially, the non-exclusive number is used as a placeholder and adjusted upwards if the exclusive calculation dictates once restricted free agency ends.
The 2023 exclusive quarterback franchise tag currently projects to $45.248 million. This number is subject to change depending on new quarterback deals, contract restructures, pay cuts and/or releases between now and then.
The logistics would be much different than with the non-exclusive tag. The Ravens and Jackson would likely need to work together on a trade because an offer sheet is prohibited with the exclusive designation. Written permission would have to be granted by the Ravens for Jackson to legally talk to other teams because Baltimore would hold his exclusive rights.
Jackson would probably be allowed to negotiate a contract with serious suitors while the Ravens figured out the trade compensation with those teams. He surely wouldn't sign his franchise tender quickly or beforehand because the Ravens could potentially control where he was dealt. A player with an unsigned tender must be under contract in order to be traded. Remaining unsigned gives a player veto rights and can act as a de facto no-trade clause that would need to be waived.
What to expect for 2023 season
Nothing that's transpired since the start of regular season has convinced me Jackson won't be with the Ravens next season. Seems like 2024 has always been the year of reckoning because of the franchise tag dynamic, even if the 2023 season is just a marriage of convenience.
The Ravens have a defense that appears to be good enough to contend for a championship after acquiring All-Pro linebacker Roquan Smith at the trade deadline. A healthy Jackson gives the Ravens the best chance to win a Super Bowl next season with a readymade defense over a quarterback that presumably would be selected near the top of first round if he is dealt. The Ravens would be banking on the quarterback drafted quickly becoming as good or better than the 2019 NFL MVP.
Jackson could choose to sit out 2023 rather than playing under an exclusive franchise tender to avoid risk of injury or to express displeasure with not having long-term security. Forfeiting approximately $45 million would an interesting decision given Jackson's career earnings from his NFL player contract. Jackson has made just under $32.5 million in five NFL seasons. The exclusive franchise tag would be about 40% more than Jackson's football career earnings.
A second franchise tag in 2024 at a NFL collective bargaining agreement-mandated 20% increase over Jackson's projected 2023 exclusive number would be $54,297,600. Knowing that Jackson would be positioned to test the open market in 2025 after making a little less than $100 million on two straight franchise tags, the Ravens would be forced to give him a fully guaranteed contract or trade him next year to prevent only getting a meager compensatory draft pick in 2026.
Designating Jackson as a franchise player in 2025 for a third consecutive year would be cost prohibitive. A third and final franchise tag with a 44% increase over the 2024 figure projects to $78,188,544.