The curious Lamar Jackson contract situation reached semi-boil this week, with owner Steve Bisciotti lamenting the player’s unwillingness to take the team’s money and Jackson responding to speculation that he’s hoping to engineer a path out of Baltimore.
Through it all, neither Jackson nor anyone else suggested that he’ll decide to engage the Ravens in contract talks. The team is ready, willing, and able to pay him. But he won’t even start the process of making offers or requesting them.
At the start of the season, the story was that he was too focused on football. After the season, the story was that he was too focused on getting healthy. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Jackson has told the Ravens that he’s currently too focused on having his best possible year and that he doesn’t want to do a deal until the 2022 season is over.
This meshes with Bisciotti’s spitballing on the possibility that Jackson thinks he doesn’t deserve a new deal until he wins a Super Bowl. Of course, not doing a deal that gives the Ravens a better cap situation in the short term could impede the efforts to put together a championship team, especially in 2023, when Jackson gets into the franchise-tag years of his career.
That’s where it’s heading. Fifth-year option in 2022. Franchise tag in 2023. If the salary cap increases by, say, 15 percent this year, the franchise tag for quarterbacks will be in the range of $34 million in 2023. If so, he’d get $40.8 million in 2024. Combine that with the $23 million he’ll make this year, and that’s a three-year payout of $97.8 million. Given the current quarterback market, that’s not a bad deal for Baltimore.
The problem arrives in 2025, when his 2024 salary would jump by 44 percent, making a third tag highly unlikely. That’s when he’d hit the open market.
For any other quarterback, seven years to unrestricted free agency wouldn’t be a bad thing. But Jackson plays the position with a unique physicality. Even if he were to suffer a Dak Prescott-style broken ankle and recover from it (which Dak obviously did), Jackson’s approach to the position puts him at risk of developing a critical mass of minor ailments that combine to cause him to lose that extra little bit that sets him apart. By not engaging the Ravens on talks aimed at signing him to a long-term deal, he carries the full range of risks arising from all potential injuries, acute and chronic, that could keep him from being regarded come 2025 as someone who should get market-value money.
The possibility of Jackson never engaging the Ravens at any point over the next three seasons carries an important presumption, one that may not come to fruition. What if the Ravens decide at some point to move on? That they need certainty at the most important position in the game? That there’s some other team that would perhaps try to trade for him, sooner or later or somewhere in between?
It’s uncertain how the Ravens will handle the situation because it’s truly unprecedented. Although the Ravens do indeed benefit from potentially paying out, on average, less than $33 million over the next three years at a time when the market is creeping toward $50 million and beyond, the greater objective at some point will become having a quarterback in place for years to come.
They thought they did. And maybe they’ll have Jackson for seven full seasons. Or maybe they’ll decide after his fifth season that, as the Chief did with Tyreek Hill, the Packers did with Davante Adams, and the Seahawks did with Russell Wilson, the time has come to maximize the potential return on Jackson’s contractual rights.