How did we get here?
It’s a question that 56 days ago had a drastically different meaning than it does now. On March 2, Lamar Jackson told the Ravens that he wanted to be traded. Now he’s the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL in terms of average annual salary after agreeing to a five-year extension with Baltimore worth a reported $260 million, including $185 million guaranteed.
“For the last few months there’s been a lot of he say, she say, a lot of nail-biting, a lot of head scratching going on,” Jackson said in a video message posted to the Ravens’ social media account shortly after the news broke. “But for the next five years, there’s a lot of ‘Flock’ going on.”
How things went from a two-years-long stalemate over a long-term contract — during which general manager Eric DeCosta said the Ravens sent “five or six” different proposals to Jackson — to the quarterback smiling in the back seat of a Bentley seemed like a stunning turnaround.
“Sometimes you just need time,” DeCosta said Thursday night. “Things develop. Sometimes these things can happen in two weeks, sometimes it takes two years. Our appreciation never wavered but it was business as well.”
DeCosta acknowledged that getting the deal done was a huge weight off his shoulders. “It’s been a challenge,” he said.
Still, there were breadcrumbs along the way that the sides might be able to come together, starting with how the Ravens reacted when Jackson revealed his trade demand in a tweet one minute before coach John Harbaugh met with the media at last month’s NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. Of the 46 questions Harbaugh was asked that day in an Arizona ballroom, 36 of them were about Jackson, and Harbaugh repeatedly talked about how much “love” the organization has for Jackson, how they want him as their long-term quarterback, and how they were proceeding as if he would be under center for them in 2023.
A week later, at the team’s predraft news conference, the first question to DeCosta — who was noticeably unavailable to the media at the owners meetings — was about Jackson’s trade request.
“Just out of respect for the process — this is a draft luncheon and we’re going to try to keep as much of this discussion as we can to the draft, to the coming weeks [and] building the best football team we can build,” he said. “I think we’ve spoken about this situation probably five different times this spring in various different press conferences and such.”
Shortly after that, a Ravens official cut off further questions about the quarterback.
In other words, the team had no interest in discussing, never mind negotiating with, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player in the media. Placing the $32.4 million nonexclusive franchise tag on Jackson five days after his trade request also sent a message to the quarterback that they were willing to let him test the market for the big money, long-term deal he sought.
But a funny thing happened within an hour of the Ravens applying the tag — seven teams said they had no interest in pursuing the 26-year-old star. More teams said the same in the weeks that followed.
Along the way, free agent wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — who is friends with Jackson and had reportedly talked with him during the offseason about teaming up — met with multiple teams, including the Ravens.
On April 9, Baltimore made its move, signing the two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl selection to a one-year deal reportedly worth $15 million. Beckham and Jackson celebrated the union that night in Miami Beach, Florida, with dinner at Prime 112 steakhouse and a trip to LIV nightclub.
Four days later, the Ravens introduced their newest receiver, who said that while he didn’t get any assurances from Jackson that the quarterback would be returning to Baltimore, he was excited about the chance.
“The goal was to come here and have the possibility of playing with him,” Beckham said at his introductory news conference at the Ravens’ facility April 13. “I was just excited about the possibility of that. My thoughts would be that he would be here.”
But the reality was that Beckham was probably never signing with the Ravens unless he knew Jackson would be his quarterback. And the departure of much-criticized offensive coordinator Greg Roman after the season and hiring of Todd Monken as his replacement a month later in February certainly didn’t hurt.
Meanwhile, when the topic of Jackson came up with DeCosta, the general manager continued to say the right things.
“Lamar is in our plans,” DeCosta said. “We’re hopeful to still get a long-term deal. He’s the right player for this team.”
Four days later, the Philadelphia Eagles signed their quarterback, Jalen Hurts, to a long-term extension, with the sides agreeing on a five-year, $255 million deal that includes up to $179.3 million guaranteed. It made Hurts, an All-Pro who led the Eagles to the Super Bowl last season, the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.
The deal helped set the market and provide some framework for Jackson’s deal after no other team emerged with an offer sheet.
“It was one where it was good for both sides,” ESPN analyst and former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said on ESPN Radio on Thursday. “Remarkably, we have to remember that Lamar Jackson is only 26 years old and the best years of his career should be in front of him.
“The big difference is the $185 [million] compared to the $235 [million] that he reportedly wanted, that’s the Deshaun Watson deal that he reportedly wanted. As the Jalen Hurts deal got done, it was just another deal that showed Deshaun Watson and the Browns were an outlier.”
But Hurts wasn’t the only one to help the two sides come together. With several teams saying publicly they had no interest in Jackson and others effectively doing the same by not making any overtures toward him, some of the Ravens’ work was done by the rest of the league.
“You look at the cost of $185 million in guarantees, plus two first-round picks [as compensation if the Ravens didn’t match an offer] compared to the fourth pick getting $9 million a year,” Tannenbaum said. “When you factor in all those things — I don’t think it was about the player in as much as the totality of what it would cost to acquire him from draft choice compensation and financial allocation of the cap.”
As the sides closed in on the deal, there were other hints, internally and externally.
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On Tuesday night, DeCosta, a Massachusetts native and die-hard Celtics fan, was watching Boston blow a 13-point lead against the Atlanta Hawks, with Trae Young draining a 3-pointer from nearly half-court with 18 seconds left to give the Hawks a stunning win. Just then, DeCosta said Thursday night, he got a text. It was from Jackson, who wrote that he thought they could get a deal done.
“I said, ‘Lamar, you saved my night,’” DeCosta said.
A few minutes later, Jackson posted a cryptic GIF on Twitter of the fictional TV character SpongeBob SquarePants thinking and then grinning.
Then on Thursday, Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is close with DeCosta and had tweeted that Beckham “looks like a Raven to me” two weeks before that deal got done, sent another cryptic tweet in which he said he knew who the Ravens were drafting. That set off speculation that Jackson would be signing.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work out with Lamar being there,” Harbaugh said Thursday night. “You just never know. You can’t know that, but I believed it would.”
At 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, the Ravens announced they had reached an agreement with Jackson.
“Let’s go, baby, let’s go,” Jackson said in the video. “Can’t wait to get there, can’t wait to be there, can’t wait to light up M&T [Bank Stadium] for the next five years. Let’s get it.”