Lamar Jackson may have been at minicamp this week and said all the right things, avoiding pouring gasoline on an offseason fire, but the contract impasse is far from over.
Jackson appears to be on track to play out his rookie contract without signing a new deal. Ravens fans, of all fans, will know the risk a team takes on when a Quarterback plays out their contract. Joe Flacco did it in 2012, making him the highest paid player in the league after leading the Ravens to their second Super Bowl victory.
What does the market look like?
For historical context, Flacco’s record-setting deal was six years for $120.6 Million. Admittedly the salary cap has risen from $123.6 Million to $208.2 Million in the intervening nine years. However, in comparison, this is pennies on the dollar when you look at the biggest QB contracts today. Four recent contracts each offer a clear precedent.
- Aaron Rodgers – 4 years, $200 Million, $153 Million guaranteed
- Deshaun Watson – 5 years, $230 Million, $230 Million guaranteed
- Patrick Mahomes – 10 years, $450 Million, $63.08 Million guaranteed
- Josh Allen – 6 years, $208 Million, $100 Million guaranteed
There are caveats to each of these deals, though all of them are relevant when discussing Jackson’s contract. Rodgers is probably the least comparable given his age and the stage of his career. However, he does have the highest average annual salary at $50 Million which all QBs will be looking to top. Mahomes’ ten-year deal is also unlikely to be replicated, especially given the wear and tear Jackson’s style encourages, as we saw last season. However, it is the biggest contract by total value, unsurprisingly given its length.
Deshaun Watson’s contract is also an anomaly, given that the Browns were effectively in a bidding war to sign him, even though he was traded. Of course, there is no way that Watson should be playing this year, or for the foreseeable future, but that is by the by. The relevance of this contract is the fact that it is fully guaranteed., and could be a structure that Jackson presses for.
Josh Allen offers best comparison to Lamar Jackson
The most relevant though has to be Josh Allen, not least because he was in the same rookie class as Lamar Jackson, with Mahomes and Watson drafted a year earlier. That is the contract that one would expect Lamar Jackson would want to surpass. Balancing this will be a challenge. The Raven is a former unanimous league MVP, an award Allen is yet to win, despite his superstar play over the past two years. Jackson will surely want his new contract to reflect this. Baltimore may also be hesitant to offer a six-year deal, given the muscular problems Lamar may face by the end of the contract, when he will be 32.
The Bills were smart to get the deal done early. Contract values are always going to go up due to increases in the salary cap and as the next player looks to set the market rate when it’s their turn. The Ravens will do well to sign Jackson to a contract similar to Allen’s, which comes in at less than $33 Million a year. Rodgers’ $50 Million salary and Watson’s fully guaranteed contract also muddy the waters.
What are the stumbling blocks?
There are a couple more complicating factors. The first is that the Ravens traded away Marquise Brown during the draft. Brown was Baltimore’s main receiver, with clutch performances since being drafted in 2019, albeit an inconsistency that prevented him competing against the league’s best receivers.
While the Ravens got a great deal for ‘Hollywood’ Brown, given his production and avoidance of contact. Particularly when balanced against what Baltimore would have needed to have paid him when he was re-signed over the next 12 months – AJ Brown got $100 Million over four years from the Eagles – it’s understandable that Jackson would be frustrated that the team dealt his best, fastest receiver.
The Ravens didn’t directly replace him either, leaving a WR corps of unproven sophomore Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay and James Proche, alongside a stable of Tight Ends. Jackson did not hold back his displeasure on Twitter that the team drafted a Centre – probably the right move – over a receiver at 25 with the pick they got from the Cardinals. In fact, the Ravens didn’t draft a receiver at all. We’ll have to wait and see if one of the fourth round Tight Ends is converted into a big-bodied Wide Receiver.
The additional element of the Brown trade is that he is close with Lamar Jackson. Lamar will have known that Brown wanted out, but he can’t be happy to lose one of his buddies. Personal touches like this are particularly important given that Jackson is representing himself in negotiations.
Form is temporary, class is permanent
The second factor may be harder to overcome. Quite simply Jackson has not played well the past two years. Granted, anything was going to look like a down year after 2019. However his numbers are trending quite significantly downwards over the last three years across the board. What’s more Jackson played just 12 games last year, and still registered the most defeats he’s had in a season.
To be fair, Jackson started the season spectacularly as the Ravens opened the NFL season 5-1. Jackson played a ridiculous proportion of the offence, especially against the Chiefs and Colts. In the end though, he looked less effective than backup Tyler Huntley as the schedule got tougher, injuries mounted across the roster, Jackson’s health deteriorated and the offensive line became more makeshift. Jackson missed the final four games after hobbling off against Cleveland.
The performances haven’t been as hoped over the last two years, even allowing for a regression to the mean. Even if injuries have played a factor, this is something the Ravens need to seriously consider, given their QB’s propensity to contact. Not to mention the increased risk of muscular injuries. Plus the greater significance these will have as Jackson ages, given how much of his game relies on, at the very least the threat, of his athleticism.
What are the Ravens options?
Assuming that a deal is reached, there are two contracts, excluding the Franchise Tag, that the Ravens could aim for – both as extensions beyond this season.
- 3 years, $168 Million, Fully guaranteed
- 5 years, $260 Million, $80 Million guaranteed, front loaded
Given injuries and past performance, the Ravens won’t want to mortgage their long term future to keep Jackson. So a short term, high salary and fully guaranteed contract makes sense. The other approach would be a more ‘conventional’ contract, in terms of length. That would include team-friendly options after year two or three, and no money guaranteed beyond this point. Both options would make the 2019 MVP the highest paid QB in terms of annual salary. He will want to be the highest paid by one metric or another. The first option would have a higher annual rate as a sweetener to compensate for a shorter contract. It would also mean Jackson has another contract opportunity at 29.
Font loading the contract does come with challenges though. The ideal situation would be to have Jackson under a long-term deal before the start of this season. That would mean adjusting Jackson’s cap figure (currently $23 Million) and presumably increasing the cap figure to front load the deal. But the Ravens have just $6 Million in cap space this season to play with, with further additions to make during preseason. They also have only $40 Million in cap space for 2023 already.
What’s the outlook?
Lamar Jackson may have said that he wants to retire a Raven. That relieves some pressure, but he has made no indication of a hometown discount, or that the two parties are close. There is still much to play out over this summer and potentially next spring. The Ravens could use the franchise tag over the next two years, but this is a high risk and demotivating strategy.
There are several factors in play, injuries and on field performance only complicate matters in this case. But ultimately Jackson is a superstar talent who can win a game on his own. He deserves to be paid like it. The Ravens will likely regret not completing this deal over the last two summers. Now the chips are down and Jackson can only add to his value in the autumn.
One this is for sure, if Jackson reaches the open market, it is a whole new ball game.
Image: Press Box Online
Adam Barton is a regular contributor to tis site. Find more of his work here.