OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A day after the Ravens’ campaign ended with a 24-17 wildcard loss at the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson kicked off an offseason of uncertainty by sharing a screenshot of a cryptic quote of unknown origin on Instagram.
“If you have a good thing, don’t play with it,” the quote began. “You’re not taking any chances of losing it. You don’t neglect it. If you have something good, pour into it. You appreciate it. Because when you take care of good, good takes care of you.”
It’s this sort of what-does-he-mean-with-this-post that has fueled speculation about Jackson’s future in Baltimore. What’s clear is that there are only three ways to end this: sign Jackson – who doesn’t have an agent – on a long-term contract; pin the franchise tag to him; or trade it, which is a scenario that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
Now that their season is over, the Ravens and Jackson can resume negotiations for a new deal. It’s been over four months since the Ravens announced they couldn’t come to an agreement by the start of the regular season, which was Jackson’s self-imposed deadline, and drama has been building around the standoff.
“After speaking to Lamar and people within this organization, I say the relationship is salvageable,” Robert Griffin III, Jackson’s former backup with the Ravens, said on ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown.
As this situation plays out, it will dominate the most critical offseason in Ravens history.
Option 1: Long term business
This is seen as the most unlikely outcome considering the sides have been in contract negotiations for two years. Baltimore and Jackson have two months to finalize a deal before the Ravens put the franchise tag on to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
If the Ravens tag Jackson, the sides have until an NFL-mandated July 15 deadline to complete an overtime. If there is no deal by mid-July, Jackson would have to play the season under the tag.
Before contract talks were postponed, sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter that Jackson had turned down the Ravens’ $250 million five-year extension, with $133 million guaranteed at signing. That would have made Jackson the second highest-paid quarterback in terms of average per year and money guaranteed at signing.
But sources added that team officials balked at Jackson’s desire for a fully guaranteed deal similar to the one the Cleveland Browns gave Deshaun Watson for five years and $230 million.
In March, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti hinted that Watson’s record deal would complicate future quarterback contract negotiations, before adding, “But that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to play this game, you know? We will see.”
A deal would allow the Ravens to better upgrade the supporting cast around Jackson. His salary cap on a long-term contract would likely be between $20 million and $30 million for the first year. That would be at least $15 million less than the exclusive franchise tag that could be used to sign free agents like a much-needed wide receiver.
But there doesn’t seem to be much hope of a long-term deal unless the Ravens meet Jackson’s demand for a fully guaranteed contract, or Jackson backs down from that stance.
Option 2: Franchise Tag
This is considered the most likely outcome as Baltimore won’t let Jackson hit the free hand. The window for using the tag is February 21 through March 7, and Baltimore has two routes with the tag: non-exclusive or exclusive.
The non-exclusive tag is less expensive but reduces a team’s bargaining power as it allows Jackson to engage in contract talks with other teams. If Jackson signs an offer sheet with another team, the Ravens would have the right to adjust the offer or take two first-round picks as compensation.
The nonexclusive tag is more cap-friendly at $30-$35 million, but it probably isn’t feasible if Baltimore thinks it can get more than two first-round picks for Jackson.
It is expected that the Ravens would use the exclusive tag, which has a higher price tag but allows Baltimore to control trade talks. This happened last offseason with wide receiver Davante Adams tagged by the Green Bay Packers and dealt to the Las Vegas Raiders 10 days later. And like Adams, the Ravens would need Jackson to sign his offer before selling him because a team can’t handle an unsigned player. So Jackson has a say in where he will go because he can veto any deal by refusing to sign his franchise bid.
The exclusive tag is steep — an estimated $45 million for Jackson — but the Ravens can set their price if teams are interested in acquiring Jackson and Baltimore is interested in selling him. The problem for the Ravens is that they have just over $40 million in salary caps, and Baltimore needs to be below the cap by the start of the new league year (March 15).
To bring Jackson’s exclusive tag below the cap, Baltimore would be forced to make room by taking pay cuts with the likes of defensive end Calais Campbell ($7 million in cap savings on cut) and running back Gus Edwards (4, 4 million US dollars) approves or negotiates. and Safety Chuck Clark ($3.6 million). The Ravens would still have little room to fill gaps in the roster with Jackson on the exclusive tag.
By using the tag, the Ravens may see less of Jackson than they did last offseason. Jackson only reported for mandatory minicamp in June of last year and missed optional workouts in May and June for the first time in his five-year career. If Jackson doesn’t sign the franchise tender this year, he’s technically not under contract and won’t have to attend spring offseason drills or training camp. Most players eventually play under the tag, but then-Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season to protest the tag.
It’s rare for teams to use the tag for a franchise quarterback. In the last 10 offseasons, only two got the label, according to ESPN Stats & Information: Kirk Cousins (2016 and 2017), who was with Washington at the time, and Dak Prescott (2020 and 2021) of the Dallas Cowboys. Prescott eventually signed a long-term extension with the Cowboys while Cousins was given a free hand and signed a landmark contract with the Minnesota Vikings.
Option 3: Trade
The mere suggestion that Jackson act would have raised eyebrows ahead of the season.
In March, before Watson’s deal, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said Jackson was a player who could help Baltimore win multiple Super Bowls. In September, coach John Harbaugh said, “He’s going to be playing quarterback here for a long time.”
But Jackson couldn’t finish the season for the second year in a row due to injuries. He has been sidelined for 10 of Baltimore’s last 22 games (including playoffs).
And if the Ravens are convinced they can’t reach an agreement with Jackson, they would have to consider trading him either this offseason or next. It’s hard to believe that Baltimore would let Jackson play under the tag for the next two seasons, reach free agency in 2025 and settle for a third-round compensatory pick in return.
It is not known how much design capital Baltimore could gain from trading with Jackson. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks received two first-round picks and two second-round picks from the Denver Broncos for then 33-year-old Russell Wilson. The market value should be much higher for Jackson, who turned 26 earlier this month.
Houston traded Watson and a sixth-round pick to the Browns in 2024 in exchange for first-round picks in 2022, 2023, and 2024; a third-round selection in 2022; and an election for the fourth round in 2024.
For what it’s worth, neither the Broncos nor the Browns have posted a positive return on investment in the first year after their huge QB deals. Wilson struggled all season — his 37.0 QBR ranked 27th — while the Broncos won just five games and fired first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett. Watson only played six games after serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct guidelines by sexually assaulting massage therapists, as defined by the NFL. He threw for seven touchdowns and five interceptions, finishing with a 38.3 QBR.
Trading Jackson would mark an unprecedented move in the NFL. There have been nine trades involving NFL MVP quarterbacks — from Roman Gabriel in 1969 to Matt Ryan last season — and none have been traded under the age of 30.
Jackson’s teammates aren’t receptive to seeing him go anywhere else this offseason.
“All I know is that as long as I play, I want Lamar to play here with me,” Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. “I have every confidence that they will work something out.”