Deals are never made in a vacuum. There’s always history to consider and a future to predict. That is the unavoidable context of the Ravens’ contract negotiations with Lamar Jackson: They can control what they offer their franchise quarterback. They can’t control the market forces dictating what his extension might be worth.
“It’s all about the marketplace,” said Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers official.
It will cost a lot to keep Jackson in Baltimore, because quality play at the most important position in sports does not come cheap. In 2018, quarterback Joe Flacco’s final season with the Ravens, he had a $24.8 million salary cap hit, fourth highest in the NFL. Now, after a wave of megadeals for young stars at the position, general manager Eric DeCosta might just pinch himself if Jackson’s deal comes in at $34.8 million annually.
Quarterbacks old and new have offered Jackson and Ravens officials a range of templates for their next contract. From guaranteed money to void years, from player-friendly timetables to team-friendly salaries, here’s what four deals tell us about what Jackson’s own extension might look like:
Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes
- 2020: $5.3 million salary cap hit ($0.8 million base salary, $4.5 million signing bonus)
- 2021: $7.4 million ($1 million, $6.4 million in bonuses)
- 2022: $35.8 million ($1.5 million, $34.3 million)
- 2023: $46.8 million ($5.5 million, $41.3 million)
- 2024: $44.3 million ($2.5 million, $41.8 million)
- 2025: $46.3 million ($2.5 million, $43.8 million)
- 2026: $42 million ($2.5 million, $39.5 million)
- 2027: $60 million ($10 million, $50 million)
- 2028: $44.5 million ($13 million, $31.5 million)
- 2029: $45 million ($20.5 million, $24.5 million)
- 2030: $50.5 million ($27 million, $23.5 million)
- 2031: $52.5 million ($38 million, $14.5 million)
Mahomes’ deal is unique in many ways. Most notable is its sheer size. With the 10-year, $450 million extension, Mahomes was fully guaranteed $63 million at signing and had $103.5 million guaranteed in March. If he’s still on the Kansas City Chiefs’ roster next March — and little but an alien abduction will prevent that — he’ll have $141.4 million guaranteed.
With the added security of “guarantee mechanisms,” Mahomes will be almost impossible to cut. Across the NFL, few veterans have their base salaries guaranteed. Fewer still have them guaranteed at or near the beginning of the new league year in March, before the NFL’s free-agent frenzy begins. Even more rare are the handful of players who have their salary guaranteed the year before the team’s payment comes due.
Then there’s Mahomes. His 2023 compensation — notably, a $34.4 million roster bonus — became fully guaranteed this past March. His 2024 compensation guarantees next March, and most of his 2025 compensation will be secured in 2023. Starting in 2025, Mahomes’ guarantee mechanisms take effect only a year in advance. But by then, Mahomes will be seeing more new money than at any other point in his contract.
“I think the biggest thing to me was those guarantee mechanisms in the later years in the contracts,” Mahomes said after signing the deal last July. “That was kind of a deal-sealer to me, of knowing that they had full trust in me and that the Chiefs are going to do whatever they can to have the best team around me every single year until hopefully the end of my career.”
Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott
- 2021: $22.2 million salary cap hit ($9 million base salary, $13.2 million signing bonus)
- 2022: $33.2 million ($20 million, $13.2 million)
- 2023: $44.2 million ($31 million, $13.2 million)
- 2024: $47.2 million ($29 million, $13.2 million, $5 million roster bonus)
- 2025: Void year; $13.2 million signing bonus
- 2026: Void year
The Dallas Cowboys star was the most recent quarterback to get a megadeal, signing a four-year, $160 million extension with $126 million guaranteed in March. Prescott’s signing bonus was an NFL-record $66 million, meaning he’ll earn $75 million in 2021.
The Cowboys’ cap number will be more modest. Under NFL rules, signing bonuses are prorated over the life of a contract, up to a maximum of five years, even if the player has already received the bonus in full. In Prescott’s case, his $66 million signing bonus will be spread over five years ($13.2 million annually).
The contract’s voidable years in 2025 and 2026 will help keep the Cowboys out of salary cap purgatory — and could offer a template for Jackson’s extension. While Prescott’s deal expires after the 2024 season, Dallas has already pushed some of his cap hit into 2025. Next year, the Cowboys could restructure his contract, converting part of his 2022 base salary into even more bonus money that would prorate through the 2026 season.
One way or another, the Cowboys’ bill will come due. Some teams just choose to wait.
“The truth is, most anything that I’ve ever been involved in that ended up being special, I overpaid for, every time, to the end,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said at a March news conference with Prescott. “Anytime I’ve tried to get a bargain, I got just that. It was a bargain in a lot of ways and not up to standard.”
He added: “If anyone has ever taken advantage of me financially, I’m proud it’s the one sitting next to me on the right.”
Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson
- 2020: $9.8 million salary cap hit ($1.2 million base salary, $7.4 million signing bonus, $1.2 million roster bonus)
- 2021: $15.9 million ($10.5 million, $5.4 million)
- 2022: $40.4 million ($35 million, $5.4 million)
- 2023: $42.4 million ($20 million, $5.4 million, $17 million roster bonus)
- 2024: $37.4 million ($32 million, $5.4 million)
- 2025: $32 million ($32 million)
Watson doesn’t have Jackson’s record or durability, but the Texans quarterback might be Jackson’s best analog for contract projections. In April, the Ravens exercised the fifth-year option on Jackson’s rookie contract, just as Houston did with Watson’s after a stellar 2019. Now the Ravens could finalize an extension ahead of Jackson’s fourth season, just as Watson signed a four-year, $156 million extension a week before the Texans’ opener. Jackson turns 25 in January; his old college rival turned 25 in September.
Watson’s 2020 deal guaranteed $73.7 million at signing — a $27 million bonus, along with the first three years of salary — but kept the cap hit relatively low over the first two years. From 2020 to 2022, Watson’s base salary will have jumped from $1.2 million to $10.5 million to $35 million. His 2023 roster bonus and salary become fully guaranteed in March of that year, though sexual assault allegations have clouded Watson’s future in Houston.
“You’re trying to do what’s best for both sides to come to a good agreement,” Texans executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby said of the deal in September. “We worked hard on it to get it right.”
Watson’s contract compares favorably to Mahomes’, the largest in American team sports history. While the Chiefs’ deal is worth $450 million overall, its cash flow doesn’t overtake the Texans’ until 2025. By that point, with the NFL’s new media rights deals in place, Watson could be in line for a second megadeal worth well over $50 million annually. Jackson could position himself for a similar windfall.
(Then)-New England Patriots’ Tom Brady
- 2013: $13.8 million salary cap hit ($1 million base salary, $12.8 million signing bonus)
- 2014: $14.8 million ($2 million, $12.8 million)
- 2015: $14 million ($8 million, $6 million)
- 2016: $14 million ($1 million, $13 million)
- 2017: $14 million ($1 million, $13 million)
Brady’s fourth contract extension with the Patriots is a reminder not only of how much quarterback valuations have exploded in less than a decade, but also of the hometown discounts Brady took to help New England maintain its dynasty.
In 2013, Brady reworked his contract and agreed to a three-year, $27 million extension through 2017 that saved the Patriots $8 million in cap room in 2013 and $7 million in 2014. Under the deal, his cap hit was ultimately limited to $14 million annually from 2015 to 2017.
There were few better bargains in the NFL. In 2016, when Brady earned second-team All-Pro honors, he had only the 18th-highest cap hit among quarterbacks. In 2017, when Brady earned NFL Most Valuable Player honors for the third time, his cap hit was 20th, almost $10 million behind Flacco’s ($24.6 million). In the five-year span after Brady agreed to the team-friendly extension, New England appeared in three Super Bowls and won two.
“I was just trying to stay ahead of the curve,” Patriots team owner Robert Kraft said in 2013. “If we were going to have to pay him elite-quarterback money and have elite-quarterback cap numbers, I just didn’t think we would be able to build a team. We don’t want to have a team where we’re paying 18 to 20% to a player on the cap. I wanted to do something elegant that would work for everybody.”
In 2019, before his first playoff game, Jackson told legendary Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis that he wants to be “the Brady” of Baltimore, delivering “multiple” titles to the franchise. He’s often called Brady the “GOAT,” or greatest of all time, citing his championship pedigree. The size of Jackson’s contract won’t affect how fast he can run or how accurately he can throw. But it will determine how the Ravens can build what he wants more than anything else: a championship-caliber team.