INDIANAPOLIS – Forget what you think you know about Lamar Jackson's stalemate with the Baltimore Ravens.
Drop all pretense about what him not having formal negotiating representation tends to indicate. Step beyond the common narratives for a moment, if you will, about power and knowledge and leverage as it pertains to a 25-year-old generational athlete forgoing an agent as his rookie contract expires. Consider the possibility that, despite his age and lack of any prior negotiating experience, Jackson might have positioned himself as well as possible given what the team has been willing to offer thus far. And, perhaps, an argument can be made that at this point, given the magnitude of what he has accomplished thus far and his importance to the franchise, that not having an agent working on his behalf may actually benefit the quarterback in certain aspects.
If you are under the impression that Jackson is some naïve, out-of-his-depth, disengaged vessel in terms of his contract, you would be incorrect. Numerous sources close to this situation indicated he is quite well-versed in the NFL quarterback financial landscape, and league sources also indicated the Ravens have never presented an offer in the stratosphere of the $40M-$45M per year that other top young QBs have secured, instead focusing on long-term deals (five years or more) closer to $35M a year.
There's plenty of chatter at the scouting combine about the impasse between Jackson and the team that moved up to the end of the first round to select him in 2018. At a time when so many teams are desperate to find an answer at quarterback – and with so few options abounding and desperation spreading – many agents and NFL executives are trying to handicap the endgame of this scenario in Baltimore. Any star quarterback contract has vast tentacles, as those deals tend to reset markets and open new opportunities for others to follow. But the more plugged-in industry sources I spoke with during what amounts to football's winter meetings in Indy, the more convinced I became that one outcome Jackson is willing to pursue is, decidedly, an homage to the past.
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What if, short of the Ravens paying him like the top two quarterbacks in the game, on his terms, Jackson is content to play out 2022 on his $23M fifth-year option, and then let the Ravens franchise tag him the following two years to facilitate him becoming the rarest of rare NFL commodities – a megastar quarterback on the open market before age 30? What if, unlike say a Patrick Mahomes who locked in on an unprecedented 10-year extension with the Chiefs two years ago, Jackson is more focused on a short-term deal to maximize leverage and compensation? What if three years sounds much more attractive to him than six years, let alone 10 years?
What if he's looking at going the Kirk Cousins route, and playing out two franchise tags to then capture a fully guaranteed three-year deal, only at today's prices? What if he's willing to gamble on himself to a degree almost all NFL players shun? If Cousins, a second-tier QB, was able to secure three years and $84M fully guaranteed from the Vikings in 2018, then what would a talent like Jackson – an MVP at age 22 – be worth on the open market in 2025, with the gambling money pouring in and the league's media deals continuing to set records and guys in the broadcast booth now getting $18M a year?
We just might find out.
"That's where I think this is going," said one top agent who has negotiated numerous big quarterback deals and who is monitoring this situation as closely as possible, given its impact on future QB contracts. "I hear he is looking at a three-year deal, or something short term. It's always about the money, and they aren't close on that, but it's also about the term. He already played for almost nothing ($1.7M base salary) last year. He's getting $23M (fully guaranteed) this year. You think he's scared of a franchise tag? I keep hearing he's looking at Cousins."
One NFL contract negotiator for a team in need of a quarterbacks said: "Lamar has them by the balls, whether he knows it or not. And I get the impression that he does. They can't carry him at $23M (against the cap on his fifth-year option) and do anything meaningful in free agency. And there aren't any quarterbacks out there. Trust me. We're looking at all of them."
Of course, we're a long way from that outcome right now. But life comes at you fast, and I reckon Jackson is more resolute and stuck in than most. And in this case, not having an agent may aid his cause to some degree.
I'll let you in on a dirty little secret – agents don't get paid unless a deal is done and in many cases a player is urged to sign something less than ideal out of fear of injury or fear of the agent losing the client, or to keep the agent in the good graces of that owner to grease the wheels for that next extension for his other clients on the team. And teams are far more willing to rip and shred and poke holes in their most important player when they are doing it through a third party, and not directly to the player and his mother. And that third party, when paid by the player, has a fiduciary obligation to be available and engage with the team and hear them out. By and large having representation is advisable, but it is far from mandatory and I wouldn't use that decision to discount Jackson's formidable negotiating position.
"I hate to say it, and I wish he had an agent, but I think he has played this really well," said one top NFL agent. "When you do this for a living you have to follow certain protocols and diplomacy and, I hate to say it, but it's true, you have to worry about future business with the team. For this kid and his mom, this is a one-off. A one-time thing. And the team has to be mindful of those dynamics. I hope he does play it out on the two tags. I wish more quarterbacks would do it."
Lamar Jackson, professional QB, has every right to focus solely on his craft year-round, and not his contract. He will say and do all the right things about his team and his personal situation, as he always has. And if he doesn't want to hang out in general manager Eric DeCosta's office sweating over contract minutia, he doesn't have to. He doesn't owe them that. Everyone has a number; maybe the Ravens get there and maybe they don't, but Jackson isn't required to partake in any back-and-forth and give them offers or tip his hand.
"We'll work at Lamar's urgency," DeCosta said at the combine Tuesday, reiterating what he conveyed last month at his season-ending press conference when he noted they have had only a handful of discussions the past year. "He knows how to find me; I know how to find him."
Thing is, right now, only one guy seems to be really looking.
Jackson's union and the owners collectively bargained this entry-level compensation strata and this young man never said a negative word about it or intimated he would skip a single practice let alone a game despite him outplaying his compensation his rookie year. He never pulled any social media stunts while being the biggest bargain in profession sports a year ago and incurring massive injury risk in the process. Have to imagine any agent would have advised Jackson to withhold services in 2020 until the sides had a long-term deal (I would have as well), but that has passed and the Ravens went winless and their season collapsed with Jackson out with an ankle injury, and they have a depleted roster and significant holes to fill now, with Jackson's cap figure a considerable impediment.
This season, Jackson will earn $1.28M a week, nearly equaling his entire 2021 salary. Jackson made $9.8M total in bonus and salary the past four years; he will surpass that in Week 8 next season. Maybe he is OK with that, or at least OK enough with that to hold firm unless the Ravens meet his expectations on length and value.
What if Jackson is actually getting sage advice from experts in the field of salary cap and negotiation behind the scenes without formal representation? What if he is asking all the right questions and playing this expertly by letting the Ravens chase him around without saying much at all to them or the public about the process? What if he's perfectly fine with everyone assuming he is going to get played by the Ravens, while the fact is, they may have already played themselves by not getting this done after last season, at least when Josh Allen signed before the 2021 season?
Because that's how it's looking to many who negotiate these deals for a living. It's impossible to calculate the exclusive rights QB franchise tags for 2023 and 2024 right now without knowing the exact values of the five highest-paid passers in the game when we get there. But QB salaries don't drop. Our CBS contract expert Joel Corry has pegged the 2023 exclusive-rights number at $43.5M, and a second tag would require a 120% raise, to $52.2M. Those numbers were derived from the current top five cap numbers at the quarterback position, which could fluctuate in either direction due to restructures and other contract manipulations.
That would be $118.7M over three years, all on rolling fully guaranteed deals from year to year, all counting fully against the cap each year; Mahomes, in the first three years of his prolonged extension, earned $63M. If he played out two franchise tags, Jackson would be negotiating his first true extension off a minimal average salary per year of likely $55M if he continues to perform (again, the injury risky is real but Dak Prescott came off a season-ending injury and still got a second tag before he signed his monster extension). But in truth the Ravens would have to seriously consider trade offers by 2024, or a non-exclusive tag to facilitate a trade, because the cap ramifications for a team seemingly always in cap purgatory, coupled with the risk of losing him for only a comp pick the final year, could have devastating consequences.
I wouldn't mistake Jackson's effusive smile and playful nature for a lack of seriousness about these matters. Don't conflate his relative nonchalance, publicly, about his contract, with indifference. Calculated or not, it's working. The less he says and does, the more pressure there is on the Ravens to up the ante. A wise man, longtime NHL Hall of Fame executive Jimmy Devellano – one of the architects of the New York Islanders' dynasty and the Detroit Red Wings' mini-dynasty – once told me something sage: "When you have the hammer, silence is power."
Don't get it twisted. Jackson has the hammer. And he knows it.