Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has become an NFL unicorn for his ability to make something out of nothing. In the open field, he impossibly evades tacklers, and in the backfield, he dodges linemen and squeezes downfield passes between defensive backs.
But as Jackson, now a veteran of five professional seasons, tries to navigate a long-term contract, he’s run into dead ends and deal breakers he can’t elude. The unanimous 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player is still a unicorn, but in this arena, he lacks options. There’s nowhere to run.
Jackson is still at least a year away from being a true free agent, leaving him at the mercy of the team that drafted him in 2018. All he can do is grasp at the few levers available to him.
On Monday, one minute before Ravens coach John Harbaugh addressed the media at the NFL owners meetings, Jackson posted a tweet to his 1 million followers revealing that he requested a trade from the Ravens. The proclamation had limited practical effect: Since the Ravens placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on Jackson, he can already negotiate with any NFL team (although the Ravens can match any offer he receives or decline and receive two first-round draft picks as compensation).
However, by posting the tweet, which said the Ravens have “not been interested in meeting my value,” Jackson played one of the few cards available to him. By declaring his dissatisfaction with Baltimore, he potentially lowered his trade value and made him more attainable to other teams, while redirecting the narrative. Without free agency, that’s about all he can do.
Jackson signed a four-year rookie contract in 2018 and the Ravens later exercised their fifth-year option, retaining him through the 2022 season. They then issued him the franchise tag, which would keep him in Baltimore for an additional year. The Ravens could, in theory, tag him at least once more — as the Washington Commanders did with Kirk Cousins — effectively keeping him in Baltimore for seven years before he reaches free agency.
A trade (or extension) is likely to happen before then, but the point is this: The path to free agency for a star quarterback is long.
In other leagues, top players have a bit more power. NBA players can hit free agency after their fourth year in the league and MLB players, who often end up having longer careers than their NFL counterparts, can become free agents after six — though teams can manipulate their service time when they’re still in the minor leagues.
The NFL is also unique in that players’ contracts are not guaranteed. If a player, on a four-year deal, is playing above his value, the team continues to pay him as the contract dictates. But if he plays below his value after a couple of seasons, he can typically be cut.
The team possesses the power.
“It gives these pro football teams a kind of leverage that doesn’t exist in any other professional sport,” said Brad Snyder, a Georgetown Law professor who teaches sports law and formerly wrote for The Sun.
For NFL athletes, who play in the league that generates the most money and interest, to have less power than players in the NBA and MLB is “in some ways mind-boggling,” Snyder said.
Former NFL agent and executive Andrew Brandt said on his podcast this week that because Jackson has finished his rookie contract, “he should be a free agent.”
“He should be able to negotiate with multiple teams, which may indeed result in a fully secured five-year contract,” he said. “He can’t because of the [collective bargaining agreement] allowing a franchise tag, giving all the leverage to the Ravens. The Ravens have his rights. The Ravens can trade his rights. The Ravens can keep his rights.”
The franchise tag was created in 1993 and has been a part of the NFL’s CBA since then, including in the most recent iteration, which was approved in 2020 with just 51.5% of players supporting it.
The tag lasts for one season at a time. So, if Jackson were to play under the tag this year, he’d earn his annual salary but would risk future earning potential if he were to suffer a serious injury. If he had a long-term contract — which he and the Ravens have sought, without progress — he would be more financially protected in the event of injury. While NFL contracts are rarely fully guaranteed, at least part of the deal usually is. The Ravens reportedly offered Jackson a multiyear deal last year that included $133 million in guaranteed money.
Without a long-term deal in place, but equipped with the tag, the Ravens retain the power. There is one extreme path Jackson could take, however. He could sit out some or all of the 2023 season to demand what he wants.
Doing so would be a significant financial sacrifice, though. He’s set to make $32.4 million this season on the tag — more than he’s made over his entire five-year career — and each week he sits, he’d miss out on $2 million.
And so his options are limited. He can request a trade, as he’s done, but the team doesn’t have to honor it. He can sit out, but doing so would cost him significantly.
“I feel for Lamar Jackson,” Brandt said.
It might be hard for the layperson to sympathize much with Jackson’s financial situation, given his wealth, but the star quarterback has made a modest living in comparison with NFL owners — most of whom have net worths numbering in the billions. Based on his earnings to date, Jackson would have to play 153 years to earn $1 billion.
Last year, the Cleveland Browns signed quarterback Deshaun Watson to a lucrative, five-year fully guaranteed contract that was the first of its kind. Typically when an athlete pioneers a record-breaking deal, it breaks the ice and others soon follow. But that hasn’t happened so far.
Jackson has reportedly looked to match or exceed Watson’s deal, but without any luck.
If Jackson were to secure a fully guaranteed contract, it would change the market for top NFL players and likely lead to future players receiving such deals (which NBA and MLB players enjoy). Intentionally or not, Jackson is acting as a sort of champion for players by pushing the boundaries against the owners.
With the next class of superstar quarterbacks up for contract extensions, including the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, the market will be reset again, perhaps before Jackson signs his new deal. However, it remains to be seen whether those contracts will match Watson’s in fully guaranteed money.
Owners continue to disapprove of multiyear deals in which a player is promised every single dollar, hoping the Watson contract remains an outlier.
“I do not believe in fully guaranteed contracts,” Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay told reporters Monday.
While most elite NFL quarterbacks simply sign extensions with the team who drafted them, Jackson, true to form, has marched to his own beat. Doing so, and going toe-to-toe with the status quo, is risky.
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It’s financially precarious since Jackson, who does not have an agent, remains without a long-term deal. It’s alienating, too, as his decisions have cost him some fans.
Many are upset with Jackson, who has been the face of the Ravens for years. Some expressed their disillusionment on social media this week; one fan looked to sell an autographed Jackson jersey online.
Others are more sympathetic toward Jackson’s quest to receive the money he feels he deserves. Last year — when Jackson seemed to be more of a permanent fixture in Baltimore — Ravens fan Daniel Gaston got a large arm tattoo of Jackson in a Ravens uniform.
He doesn’t regret it, though: “I don’t feel like I made a mistake at all,” Gaston said Tuesday. He still donned a Jackson jersey this week.
Regardless of how it all pans out, Gaston will likely remain a Ravens fan, he said, while also supporting Jackson and a new team if the star quarterback does suit up for someone else. Gaston, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, has never seen Jackson play in person. His dream has been to ask Jackson to autograph his tattoo — and then have that signature tattooed onto him, too.
He hopes to see Jackson play this year in a game against Tennessee. No matter which team Jackson is on, he plans to ask for his autograph.
“Lamar, get your money. Get your money,” Gaston said. “He’s gotta take care of him and his. I can’t be mad.”