It previously had been impossible to assess whether Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson should have taken the best offer the team made on a long-term contract, in lieu of playing in the final year of his rookie contract for $23 million. There is now a firm data point regarding the deal he rejected.
Chris Mortensen of ESPN.com reports that Jackson passed on a six-year deal (i.e., a five-year extension) that would have paid him $133 million fully-guaranteed at signing. That’s more than Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray ($103.3 million) and Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson ($124 million) received in full guarantees on longer contracts (seven years each) signed in recent weeks.
Jackson “could have earned” more than $290 million over six years. The new-money average would have exceeded, per Mortensen, the $48.5 million paid by the Broncos to Wilson. (Wilson’s deal was reported as having a new-money average of $49 million; as explained here, the failure to include the value of the 17th-game checks for 2022 and 2023 in the old/new-money comparison drove the average down to $48.5 million.)
It’s unclear how much of the $290 million would have counted as Jackson’s base deal. Including the 17th-game check, he’ll make $24.35 million this year. Subtracting that from $290 million and dividing by five results in an average of $53.13 million. Thus, Jackson apparently would have had to hit certain triggers to earn the kind of money that would have catapulted him to $290 million.
Mortensen also reports that the deal included massive de-escalators ($2.5 million per year) tied to Jackson participating in most of the offseason program. Jackson skipped the team’s voluntary April-to-June sessions and practices in 2022, after being mostly if not completely present in his first four seasons.
The reporting has some gaps that make a full assessment of the offer impossible. What would the first-year cash flow have been? How much of the contract would have been guaranteed for injury? How much of the injury guarantee would have converted to a full guarantee in March 2023, since there’s no way they would have cut him after only one year, given whatever they would have been paying him in 2022?
None of that apparently matters, since Mortensen makes it clear that Jackson wanted a fully-guaranteed, Deshaun Watson-style contract. And, as surmised here, Mortensen reports that Jackson received “active counsel from the NFLPA at the highest levels.” Mortensen also adds that the union told Jackson “based on performance and age (25) he was justified to demand a fully guaranteed contract if that’s what he wanted.”
He’s justified to demand it, but the Ravens are justified to refuse to do it, just as the Cardinals and Broncos were. Remember, the union has made its position clear that it wants more fully-guaranteed contracts. It’s therefore fair to ask whether the NFLPA’s agenda in this regard clouded the advice Jackson received, causing him to roll the dice on a potential Kirk Cousins-style, year-to-year strategy that entails playing in 2023 and 2024 under the franchise tag, becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2025, and trying to get a fully-guaranteed contract on the open market.
Jackson could make more than $125 million (factoring in the seventeenth game check) if he remains sufficiently healthy and effective to get tagged twice. But, per the report, would have $133 million fully-guaranteed right now if he had taken the Ravens offer, plus an unknown amount on top of that in injury guarantees that likely would have flipped to full guarantees at some point in the next year or two.
Perhaps most importantly, he also would have made much more than $24.35 million in 2022. The specific amount still isn’t known. It’s a key factor for evaluating the deal.
What if he walked away from more than $50 million, cash in hand, for 2022? More than $70 million? More than $100 million? At some point, the quest for a fully-guaranteed contract must yield to the size of the bird in the hand.
We’ve said all along that Jackson needs someone who can fully and objectively evaluate the team’s best offer in comparison to a three-year quest for unrestricted free agency, which may — or may not — lead to the white whale of a fully-guaranteed deal. The union, frankly, isn’t objective; it wants players to hold firm for fully-guaranteed contracts, so that the dynamic will become a trend and, in time, standard practice. Jackson needs advice from someone with no agenda or bias whatsoever.
And if Jackson suffers a serious injury or if his play declines over the next three years for any reason (including an accumulation of minor injuries based on his physical playing style that leaves him not the player he was when he won the MVP award three years ago), Jackson will have only himself — and his union — to blame for betting on himself and losing.