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Mike Preston

Mike Preston: Why the Ravens should hold off giving QB Lamar Jackson a long-term contract | COMMENTARY

It’s uncertain whether the window for contract negotiations between the Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson is open or closed, but the team should shut it.

The status of the negotiations can’t be determined because coach John Harbaugh has gone underground since the Ravens were eliminated from playoff contention by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular-season finale, and general manager Eric DeCosta keeps waiting for Harbaugh to resurface before he graces the media with his presence. The Ravens have done the same thing with Jackson.

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Now they should shut down negotiations with the fourth-year quarterback and allow him to play under the fifth-year option they picked up last offseason that will pay him $23 million in 2022. If he continues to improve and leads the team deep into the playoffs, then the Ravens might want to offer him a multi-year deal.

If he doesn’t accept a new contract after next season, the Ravens can designate him with the franchise tag, a one-year tender of the average of the top five salaries at the position over the past five years. After that, Jackson will be in his sixth year and the Ravens will get a more in-depth look at how he holds up from all of those hits on Sunday afternoons. If they can’t reach some type of agreement, then it’s time to part ways.

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It makes so much sense, certainly more than paying him roughly $40 million per season for three to four years and guaranteeing him $100 million — the going rate for top quarterbacks. That might not have been the offer that the Ravens presented to Jackson, but it’s likely in the same ballpark as the recent contracts signed by the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, who all make more than $40 million per season.

Shortly before training camp started, both Harbaugh and DeCosta talked about the high probability of Jackson agreeing to a long-term contract, but there have been warning signs this season. Jackson played well through the first six games but regressed after a 41-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals as his accuracy started to wane. Then came the 22-10 loss to Miami in Week 10, a game in which the Dolphins consistently pressured and blitzed Jackson, who was indecisive on his initial reads and at times didn’t have his arm in position to make quick throws.

Jackson never recovered after missing the following game against the Chicago Bears with an illness, and was later knocked out for the final four games of the season with an ankle injury suffered against the Cleveland Browns. After the game, several Browns players said they wanted Jackson to play because he wasn’t the same quarterback they faced earlier.

This all should give the Ravens pause in contract talks. They have a quarterback who has tested positive for the coronavirus each of the past two seasons, forcing him to miss one game and several training camp practices. The ankle injury was initially called a high-ankle sprain before it was ruled a bone bruise, adding more mystery to a confusing season.

Former Green Bay Packers star and Hall of Famer Brett Favre once said that quarterbacks should be in full development mode by Year 4, but Jackson still has problems reading defenses. More troubling was that his quick-twitch reflexes seemed slower after the Dolphins game. He wasn’t as explosive because teams started keeping him in the pocket instead of allowing him to scramble to the outside.

Over the weekend, these run-pass option (RPO) quarterbacks crashed and burned in the playoffs, including the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray. Despite the RPO success with the Packers, Chiefs and Bills, there is a consistent theme here that also includes Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

These “run first, pass second” quarterbacks have problems reading defenses because in college most of them were taught to only read a quarter to half the field. If a receiver wasn’t open, they took off running. Some will say that Allen and Mahomes are similar, but they aren’t. Both can make throws anywhere on the field.

Mahomes runs to gain time to find open receivers. At 6 feet 5 and 237 pounds, Allen is like a tight end in the open field and has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. He can get a little goofy and do bizarre things in a game, but he is a passer first and foremost.

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The preference here is to lock in a quarterback who can make the proper throws and win games from the pocket. If a team is going to invest in a quarterback, they need to be in the mold of an Aaron Rodgers or a Tom Brady. There are some who suggest that Jackson was in a slump this season and that he was trying to do too much to mask the weaknesses of his team. Maybe that’s true. He deserves time to resolve his problems, but injuries prevented him from playing. With that said, the Ravens should heed the warning signs.

But there are also plenty of reasons to sign Jackson, who is one of the most explosive players in NFL history. In four years, he has rushed for 3,673 yards and 21 touchdowns and passed for 9,967 yards and 84 touchdowns. He has executed some of the most dazzling and unbelievable runs in league history, only rivaled by legendary running backs Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders. Of course, he was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2019.

Jackson’s teammates adore him and the Ravens are never out of a game with him at quarterback, regardless of the score or the opponent. The Ravens can also create short-term savings by signing Jackson to a long-term deal and lowering his $23 million cap hit in 2022, giving them more money to spend on free agents and draft picks.

If Jackson continues to have success and the Ravens win big games, he will be rewarded in the future. But we’re dealing with the present here, and Jackson has missed practices and games because of COVID, illnesses or injury. The Ravens have a 37-12 record with Jackson as the starter, but only one playoff win. The passing game became stagnant this season with a good group of young receivers, and there was enough blame to go around.

Jackson had an opportunity to reach a new contract agreement this past year, but for whatever reason, nothing was resolved. Maybe he got some bad advice, or the offer was too low, or maybe he wants to hit free agency. Regardless, he should be much wealthier than he is now.

But that time has passed, and so should the $100 million in guaranteed money. The Ravens have the ball. At this point, they could force Jackson to lower his demands or allow him to play out his contract. If they really want to play hardball, they can slap the franchise tag on him for both the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

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It probably won’t come down to that. Jackson certainly can’t complain about making $23 million next season. What’s important now is that the Ravens have to make the best decision for the team, and that’s to shut the window on these negotiations.

It comes down to business, and the NFL is always about the business.

Always.


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