The Baltimore Ravens have sent Lamar Jackson a message
NFL team owners are sending an even stronger one by rejecting rare opportunity to engage with superstar free agent
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On the face of it, there sure seems to be something fishy about the fact that many quarterback-needy NFL teams essentially lined up Tuesday to leak they’re not interested in pursuing Baltimore Ravens superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson.
After failing to complete a long-term contract extension with Jackson, the Ravens placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on the 2019-20 Associated Press NFL MVP to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent. Unlike the exclusive tag, the non-exclusive one permits Jackson to negotiate with other NFL clubs, though the Ravens could match any offer Jackson receives.
If the Ravens and Jackson still are unable to reach a multiyear deal and no other team bids on him, Jackson will be paid about $32 million next season. Under the terms of the exclusive tag, Jackson’s salary would have been about $45 million.
By using the non-exclusive tag instead of the exclusive one, the Ravens potentially have saved a good chunk of money that could be applied elsewhere under the salary cap. Moreover, if the Ravens apply the tag to Jackson again before the 2024-25 season, they’ll have a significantly lower two-year cash commitment to Jackson than had they initiated the whole process with the exclusive tag. Collective bargaining rules mandate Jackson would receive a 20% pay increase if he is tagged a second time.
All the numbers aside, the bottom line on the surprising situation is this: With the dearth of quarterback talent in a quarterback-centric, 32-team league, it’s a head-scratcher that the Ravens would dangle their franchise passer in front of their competitors – and that many of them would quickly say, “Not interested.”
There are not even enough good quarterbacks to go around, let alone game changers.
As a rule, NFL team owners don’t permit young, top-notch quarterbacks to hit the open market, thereby permitting other teams to set a superstar’s salary structure. The Ravens are willing to take a calculated risk that Jackson’s market isn’t as big as he believes. It’s early, but the Ravens have been proven correct so far.
That’s true despite the fact that among the game’s elite signal-callers, Jackson’s résumé is better than most. His statistics tell the story.
At only 26 (Jackson won’t turn 27 until January 2024), the two-time Pro Bowler has 101 passing touchdowns in the regular season, only 38 interceptions and a 96.7 passer rating. As a dual-threat passer, Jackson is without peer in today’s game and is arguably the best ever. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards twice. He has 24 rushing touchdowns and a 6.1-yard average, which is stunning for a quarterback.
Jackson also measures up well in the most important numbers: wins and losses. He’s 45-16 in the regular season. That’s a sparkling .738 winning percentage.
During his breakthrough sophomore NFL season, Jackson finished with a major haul of hardware, winning both the AP and Pro Bowl MVP awards. Then there’s this: Jackson and Tom Brady, the most successful quarterback in league history, are the only unanimous winners of the AP MVP award.
For even the chance to negotiate with a signal-caller so accomplished, one would think general managers should have staked out Jackson’s home Tuesday in hopes the Ravens would apply the non-exclusive tag. Instead, many teams are stiff-arming Jackson despite having canyon-sized holes at quarterback on their rosters.
What’s the deal?
Well, some NFL observers have speculated that team owners want to tamp down the quarterback market and are sending a message by turning their backs on Jackson. Now, it’s true that NFL club owners and executives were downright apoplectic after the Cleveland Browns gave Deshaun Watson a fully guaranteed, record-setting $230 million contract (shortly after word emerged about Watson’s new deal, two high-ranking league personnel executives started phone conversations by cursing about the Browns’ move when contacted by one reporter). Even for elite quarterbacks, the people who hold the marionette strings in the NFL want no part of fully guaranteed contracts, especially at the number the Browns committed to Watson.
Although it’s unclear what Jackson has sought from the Ravens, he’s entitled to an even bigger contract than Watson. Fact is, on the field, Jackson has accomplished more than Watson.
While one wouldn’t put it past team owners to band together under such circumstances, history tells us collusion is difficult to prove. Also, there are other potential explanations for why teams in need of passers apparently aren’t pursuing Jackson.
Let’s start with the non-exclusive tag.
If another team made a proposal to Jackson and the Ravens declined to match the offer, the Ravens would receive two first-round draft picks as compensation for losing Jackson. For NFL franchises, first-round picks are like mineral rights for oil and gas companies: Generally, they’re too valuable to part with. Sure, clubs will surrender first-rounders in some situations. But they’re loath to do it.
Then there’s Jackson’s style of play.
Despite Jackson’s success in college (he won a Heisman Trophy while starring for Louisville), many NFL scouts expressed doubts about his ability to succeed as a passer in a traditional NFL offense. That’s why he remained available until the final pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft, when the Ravens traded back into the opening round to select him.
After Jackson’s rookie season, Baltimore dismantled its offense and rebuilt it to fit Jackson’s unique skill set. For doing so, the Ravens were rewarded spectacularly.
It wouldn’t be surprising, however, if other teams weren’t as willing to scrap their offensive approach and make potential personnel changes to accentuate what Jackson does best. And while both the eye test and metrics reveal Jackson has improved as a passer, it’s fair to say he’s still a work in progress in the dropback game.
Furthermore, it wouldn’t be shocking if some teams had concerns about Jackson’s durability. Jackson has finished the last two seasons injured. He missed 11 games, including Baltimore’s AFC wild-card playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in January.
There’s an old saying in the NFL: Your best ability is your availability. In each of the last two seasons, Jackson has only played in 12 games.
There’s a lot at play regarding Jackson’s standing within the Ravens’ organization, which team management made clear by using the non-exclusive tag to retain his rights while also sending a message. And by backing away from Jackson, it seems NFL team owners are sending an even stronger one to him and any quarterbacks hoping to move into Mr. Watson’s neighborhood.
Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.