INDIANAPOLIS — At the 2023 NFL scouting combine, the biggest question concerning the Ravens can be measured not in seconds or pounds, but in dollars.
Scouts, coaches, prospects and media descended upon Lucas Oil Stadium this week to watch future draft picks weigh in and compete in drills such as the 40-yard dash, bench press and vertical jump. But for the Ravens, the most essential topic remains their financial future with star quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens, who currently have five picks in April’s draft, are likely to select at least one wide receiver and probably a cornerback, too. But as they scout the more than 300 prospects in Indianapolis this week, the contract status of the only NFL Most Valuable Player in franchise history remains in limbo and on top of the minds of Ravens fans.
The direction of the franchise hinges on it.
Negotiations on a long-term deal between the Ravens and Jackson, 26, began two years ago, but the sides have still not come to an agreement. And it was another quarterback’s contract signed one year ago, shortly after last year’s combine, that could be affecting negotiations.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson agreed to a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract last year with the Cleveland Browns — despite accusations of sexual misconduct from dozens of women.
There had been smaller, fully guaranteed deals before (like the Minnesota Vikings’ three-year, $84 million contract with quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2018) and long-term, lucrative deals. But until Watson’s contract — which came after Cleveland traded three first-round picks to the Houston Texans for the highly sought-after quarterback — there had never been such a large, fully guaranteed contract; he is set to receive $80 million more in guaranteed money than any previous contract.
By signing the agreement, the Browns threw a wrench into the market for the league’s elite quarterbacks.
The record-setting deal is unique. While NBA and MLB contracts are generally fully guaranteed — meaning players will receive every dollar, no matter what — NFL contracts are not; teams can, if they choose, cut a player and avoid paying him some of the deal.
Watson’s, however, is fully guaranteed, unlike those of other top players. For example, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, signed a 10-year, $450 million contract extension in 2020 with the Kansas City Chiefs, but of that, only $63 million was guaranteed at signing. Last summer, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray signed a five-year, $230.5 million deal with $103.3 million guaranteed at signing.
Jackson, who, unlike most athletes, does not have an agent, is reportedly seeking a contract similar to Watson’s.
But it’s unlikely the Ravens, known for being deliberate with large contracts, would be eager to match or exceed the largest guarantee in league history, especially considering that the Watson contract has been considered by many to be a poor decision by the Browns. Last year, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told reporters he wished Cleveland hadn’t “guaranteed the whole contract.”
“I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract,” he said. “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.”
Eric Eager, vice president of research and development at Sumer Sports, a company that advises NFL front offices, said he doubts the Ravens would be willing to give the fully guaranteed deal that Jackson reportedly seeks.
“That’s, I think, where the impasse is,” he said.
Browns general manager Andrew Berry, a Bel Air native, declined Tuesday to comment on whether he considered how Watson’s contract might affect other teams negotiating with quarterbacks. When asked whether he thought the Watson contract would pave the way for other fully guaranteed deals, Berry said he didn’t have a “crystal ball for that.”
“My guess is probably [that] it’s more unlikely that it would,” he said.
Eager said rather than mimicking Watson’s deal, he anticipates large quarterback contracts — such as the ones that the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert are likely to receive — being similar to the one Mahomes got. His contract, the largest in NFL history, is considered team-friendly in that it gives the Chiefs flexibility in their annual spending.
“Maybe we trend more toward fully guaranteed deals, but I don’t see it,” Eager said.
Former NFL agent Joel Corry has said he expects Watson’s deal to be “more of an outlier” rather than the norm. Without the benefit of hindsight, however, it’s hard to know whether Watson’s deal will be an anomaly or the start of a trend.
Sports contracts are always one-upping each other, which Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta — a former baseball executive who was portrayed by Jonah Hill in the movie “Moneyball” — noted last year of Watson’s record-setting contract.
“I doubt it’ll be a record for very long,” he said.
With so few top-end quarterbacks signing lucrative deals in a given year, one contract can have a large impact on others. Hank Boyd, a clinical professor of marketing at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland who has consulted for the NFL, said he could see other players applying pressure to receive a Watson-like contract.
“Once it gets done, everyone else says, ‘I want that,’” he said.
If the Ravens and Jackson do not come to terms by Tuesday, the team is expected to use the franchise tag on him, which operates as a one-year contract based on the average of the top five salaries at each position. The Ravens could use the exclusive tag (paying Jackson about $45 million to retain him for next season) or the nonexclusive tag (paying him about $32 million but allowing other teams to offer him a contract; if the Ravens choose not to match, they’d receive two first-round picks).
The Ravens could also trade Jackson to a team more willing to pay the contract that he wants. An NFL quarterback is perhaps the most important position in American professional sports and there would be many suitors for Jackson — just as there were for Watson last year. Four quarterbacks are expected to be drafted in the first round in April, and there are few enticing free agents for teams that miss out on a top prospect.
“I think most teams are on the hunt for a really good quarterback,” Boyd said.
If the Ravens do trade Jackson — which would likely yield several draft picks and mark one of the largest blockbuster deals in league history — they would have plenty of cap space and picks to build their roster, but without one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL. If they extend him, they would keep one of the most unique playmakers the league has seen, but be cash-strapped to attract talent at other positions.
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“The reality of it is, when you do have an expensive quarterback, you do have a different set of constraints in terms of roster building,” Berry said Tuesday, speaking about Watson and the Browns.
Top quarterbacks in the NFL earn nearly $50 million a year, which is likely what Jackson is seeking, and Eager said Jackson is one of the few players who is worth such a sum. In 2019, when Jackson joined Tom Brady (2010) as the only unanimous MVP selections in NFL history, Eager estimated his value to the Ravens in that season to be at least $75 million. Of course, he has missed games because of injury each of the past two seasons and has not matched his 2019 production, lowering his value.
“If he misses four games a year, there’s no way he’s going to accumulate that kind of value,” Eager said.
Therein lies one of the Ravens’ concerns in offering Jackson a lengthy, guaranteed deal.
Elite quarterbacks are often signed to long-term contracts when they become eligible after their third NFL season, but Jackson has now played five years — his entire rookie deal — without agreeing to terms with the team. Now, his status is one of the league’s biggest storylines and remains the keystone to the Ravens’ plans in 2023 and beyond.
The Ravens have long built success during the NFL draft process by accumulating draft capital and selecting smartly.
And once again, they will have their eyes on the top prospects this week. More eyes, however, will be on their checkbook and how they decide to deploy it.