Ravens playing a dangerous waiting game with MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson's contract, and it could be costly
Playing hardball with an MVP -- a face-of-the-franchise quarterback -- is a game of high stakes poker, and the Baltimore Ravens are in the middle of one with Lamar Jackson. Recent history suggests it's a 50/50 proposition of working things out with the 2019 unanimous league MVP.
The Green Bay Packers and their longest-tenured player in team history -- four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers -- worked out their issues this offseason to the tune of a three-year, $150.8 million contract, which made him the NFL's first player earning $50 million per year. Tom Brady, another unanimous MVP (2010), decided to stop taking pay cuts after feeling underappreciated with the New England Patriots over the course of 20 seasons and bolted for the warm beaches of Tampa Bay.
Jackson, who represents himself without the aid of an agent, set a deadline of the start of the regular season for an agreement on a new deal to be reached or he's going to play out his rookie contract on his fully guaranteed $23 million fifth-year option. The Ravens open their season on the road against the New York Jets on Sept. 11. Externally, Jackson seems to be in a good place with the organization; no holdout drama or anything close to it.
Jackson and his dual-threat skill set have earned him an even stronger market position. He's the only player in NFL history with more than 9,000 passing yards and more than 3,000 rushing yards in their first four seasons. Additionally, Jackson is the only player in NFL history with more than 2,500 passing yards and over 1,000 rushing yards in a single season, which he has done twice (2019, 2020). Jackson is the fastest quarterback, literally, in league history to attain 5,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards (35 games), and his 10 100-yard rushing games are tied with Michael Vick for the most in league history by a quarterback. He also is the only quarterback to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season twice. His five games with 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards are the most in NFL history.
So, what's the hold up? The landscape for quarterback contracts became dramatically altered this offseason when the Cleveland Browns signed Deshaun Watson to a five-year, fully guaranteed contract for $230 million, despite his impending suspension and sitting out the entire 2021 season. Naturally, a signal-caller with Jackson's resume can rightfully ask for more, which is something Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti isn't thrilled about.
"It's like, 'damn, I wish they hadn't guaranteed the whole contract,'" Bisciotti said at the NFL's annual meeting in March. "I don't know that he should've been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that's something that is groundbreaking, and it'll make negotiations harder with others. But it doesn't necessarily mean that we have to play that game, you know? We shall see."
True to Bisciotti's word, Fox Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer noted the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract the Browns signed Watson to in conjunction with his trade from the Texans in March is a breaking point in the negotiations. Jackson wants his deal, assumedly larger than Watson's, fully guaranteed, which is a rarity in the NFL. Watson's deal directly led to the Arizona Cardinals having to beat those figures, signing 2019 first overall pick quarterback Kyler Murray to a five-year, $230.5 million contract extension worth up to $238 million through salary escalators despite having one playoff appearance and no playoff wins on his resume. Since Watson and Murray's extensions this offseason, Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson recently locked in a long-term relationship with his new team to the tune of five years and $245 million after spending his first 10 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.
With a $49 million per year salary, Wilson cleared Watson ($46 million) and Murray's ($46.1 million) annual salaries and trails only Rodgers' as the NFL's highest-paid player. The fifth-year quarterback's desire for a fully guaranteed deal seems to leave talks at an impasse, and it has fans split as well. Jackson himself replied to a person on Twitter who wrote "As much as I love Lamar, a fully guaranteed deal is just bad business." The quarterback responded simply, "You don't love Lamar."
While fully guaranteed contracts are uncommon, Jackson is similarly an NFL rarity given his record-setting combination of passing and rushing numbers with the supporting cast he has been throwing to. Other than Mark Andrews, who had the tight end triple crown of leading everyone at his position in receptions (107), receiving yards (1,361) and receiving touchdowns (9) last season, Jackson's next four top pass-catchers in terms of his career passing touchdowns are no longer on the team. This list makes his career, and especially his 2019 unanimous MVP season where he led the NFL with 36 passing touchdowns while setting a new single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards, that much more jaw-dropping.
"Lamar has always been Lamar," Andrews said Tuesday. "He's just such a special talent, but like you said, he's extremely motivated, and you can see it [in] the way he's commanding the huddle. The way he's doing everything is just top notch.
"This is going to be a big, big year for him. He's extremely hungry; he's always been hungry, though. So, you all just … Not you all … But let this man live. Let him live his life. He's a good dude. So, he just has fun with it."
What have you done for me lately?
In contract negotiations, any professional sports team will do what they can to frame a player's performance as wanting for more in order to drive down the value of the player's next deal. Baseball Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, the longtime face of the New York Yankees who won five championships, spoke emotionally about how he didn't enjoy the negotiation process in his ESPN documentary, "The Captain." It took him until after he retired to bury the hatchet with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Last season, despite a laundry list of injuries to Baltimore key players like running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards as well as cornerback Marcus Peters, who missed the entire season, and left tackle Ronnie Stanley (missed final 16 games), Jackson had the Ravens out to the top seed in the AFC at 5-1 through the first six weeks of play. Eventually, the injuries took a toll and Jackson missed five games with an ankle injury, leading to the Ravens missing the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Baltimore made the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, earning one playoff win and going no further than the AFC divisional round. Come playoff time, the better teams will be equipped to stop or at least slow down an opponent's strength, which for Baltimore, is its ground game, thanks to Jackson's ghost-like ability to disappear in the open field. The Ravens have more rushing attempts (1,668) and rushing yards (8,846) than any team in the league since Jackson became their primary starter in 2019.
However, one of the NFL's duel-threat pioneers and the first player with over 30,000 career passing yards and 4,000 career rushing yards, San Francisco 49ers legend Steve Young said the Ravens have the potential for a much more dynamic offense and that Jackson could be "the greatest player in the history of the game" if they invested more into developing their passing game. To Young's point, the team did trade their top wide receiver and close friend, former first-round pick Marquise Brown, to the Arizona Cardinals on draft day this year to select center Tyler Linderbaum in the first round, seemingly doubling down on Lamar's ability to run. It's another reason Baltimore has to make things work long-term.
"My position is they will never get to championship football without a sophisticated passing game, and that's not anything to do with Lamar Jackson," Young said on an ESPN NFL preseason pregame show in August. "Lamar Jackson is a complete player that is not trained in being a sophisticated passer. They doubled down again to do all the great things that Lamar does. Great, but until he gets the chance to show that he is a sophisticated passer of the football in a sophisticated passing game, what they have invested in Lamar Jackson is damned because of what the Ravens are doing, not because of Lamar Jackson."
For a team that's been built around his unique abilities, the Ravens cannot afford losing Jackson, and if they cannot come to a new agreement in a matter of days, they run the risk of some uncomfortable down years as he could potentially enter free agency next offseason. The dual-threat dynamo and South Florida native started tweeting about his favorite NFL teams growing up at the end of August, subtly toying with the idea of playing somewhere else.
"We'll pay him when he's ready," Bisciotti said of Jackson last March. "Without a QB you believe in, life stinks as an NFL owner and as a fan base. … We appreciate [Lamar]. All I know is that his teammates love him and the front office loves him."
If the Ravens truly love him, they need to show him immediately by topping Watson's $230 million in guaranteed money or by giving him a contract that puts him in the $50 million-per-year club with Rodgers. The longer Baltimore waits, the price will continue to climb and without Jackson, the team could be facing years of regret. Read More