Before Lamar Jackson was the NFL’s best player without an agent, he was a first-round prospect who felt he didn’t need one.
Jackson was considered an unconventional player ahead of the 2018 draft, a Heisman Trophy-winning dual-threat quarterback who’d never completed more than 60% of his passes over his three seasons at Louisville. Also unconventional was his representation: His mother, Felicia Jones, served as his manager. He said he’d enlisted a lawyer to review contracts. But at no point during the predraft process, a monthslong whirlwind of workouts and meetings, did he hire an agent.
“I know coming in as a rookie, agents don’t negotiate anything, really,” Jackson said at the NFL scouting combine. “You know you’re going to get the salary you’re going to get, and I decided I don’t need him. He’s going to be taking a big cut of my paycheck anyways, and I feel I deserve it right now.”
Two months later, the Ravens drafted Jackson No. 32 overall. That summer, he signed a standard rookie contract. Now, as the Ravens work toward an extension with Jackson, there is little doubt he’ll sign the richest contract in franchise history. General manager Eric DeCosta has said the Ravens will “work tirelessly” to keep Jackson. Coach John Harbaugh last month called it a “done deal.” Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, said he “would love to be here forever.”
But the framework of a franchise-altering megadeal will depend in part on who’s negotiating it. On one side is the Ravens’ brain trust: not just team owner Steve Bisciotti and DeCosta, but also team officials like senior vice president of football operations Pat Moriarty and vice president of football administration Nick Matteo. On the other side is Jackson and … well, it’s not exactly clear.
Asked in late May whether he was representing himself in contract negotiations, Jackson laughed and said, “Maybe, maybe. I told you, we’ll see.” At the end of offseason workouts in mid-June, Harbaugh said Jackson doesn’t have an agent. Jackson’s advisers can help only so much, as teams are prohibited from engaging in contract talks with agents who are not certified by the NFL Players Association.
It’s not uncommon for players to represent themselves; inside linebacker Bobby Wagner and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins signed record-breaking deals without the help of an agent. But considering the magnitude of Jackson’s potential deal, former NFL front-office executives said contract talks could get “clunky,” difficult and even tense, with landmines on both sides. The Ravens must appraise Jackson’s worth to the franchise, and Jackson must decide whether it’s a fair price.
“I think that the biggest thing is communication, for me and Lamar to communicate,” DeCosta told ProFootballTalk in May. “We’ve already done a deal with Lamar. We did a rookie deal with Lamar. Now, obviously, it wasn’t the same, what we did. We understand some of the complications because we did that prior deal. This is a much different deal with a much different structure.”
‘The biggest thing is communication’
Players seldom negotiate contracts without an agent. Former New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller said he dealt with only two or three such cases in his three-plus decades of NFL front-office experience. Former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said they’re “very, very rare.”
Without an agent, Jackson’s predraft experience was uneven. Multiple teams reportedly had trouble reaching him and his advisers to schedule visits. Former ESPN analyst Bill Polian’s remarks that Jackson was better off as an NFL wide receiver trailed him like a shadow for months. Jackson’s decision not to run the 40-yard dash was scrutinized.
Jackson ultimately fell to the end of the first round, the fifth quarterback off the board in a draft where four of the top 10 picks played the position. His rookie deal, as determined by the NFL’s rookie wage scale, was worth $9.5 million over four years, including a $5 million signing bonus. NFL agents are limited to no more than a 3% commission of a player’s salary, meaning Jackson saved, at most, $285,000.
Had he been taken even two picks earlier, Jackson would have been due a rookie contract worth about $9.9 million overall. With 3% agent fees, Jackson still would have cleared his actual savings by about $100,000. His decision to forgo traditional representation might have ultimately proved more costly than imagined.
But over his first three seasons in Baltimore, Jackson turned into one of the NFL’s best bargains. As a rookie, he helped lead the Ravens to their first AFC North title since 2012. In 2019, he became the NFL’s second-ever unanimous MVP after leading the league in touchdown passes and setting the single-season rushing record for a quarterback. Even in a disappointing 2020, Jackson finished seventh in QBR and won his first career playoff game.
As Jackson approached this offseason, the first in which he would be eligible for a contract extension, it was not hard to see how much his next deal might be worth. Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 MVP, had signed a 10-year, $450 million extension with the Kansas City Chiefs. Then the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson and Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott got four-year deals worth $156 million and $160 million, respectively.
The third question DeCosta took at his end-of-season news conference in January was about whether Jackson, who’s under contract through the 2022 season, might sign an extension this year.
“He is someone that deserves to be paid in that $38 million- to $40 million-a-year market,” said Tannenbaum, now an ESPN analyst. “To me, it’s more [a matter of] not if, but when. It’s a deal that, if you’re Baltimore, you absolutely have to get done.”
But with whose help? DeCosta declined in March to say who was representing Jackson, or might represent him, in their early contract negotiations. Asked in May about Jackson’s nontraditional approach, DeCosta told ProFootballTalk that it wouldn’t necessarily complicate negotiations. He didn’t say it’d simplify them, either.
Personal vs. professional
Some players without an agent have fared far better, or at least risked less, than others. In 2016, left tackle Russell Okung signed a team-friendly, five-year deal with the Broncos. After his first season, Denver declined a four-year option worth $48 million, including $20.5 million guaranteed, and Okung left having earned just $8 million overall.
In 2018, cornerback Richard Sherman signed an incentive-heavy, three-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers that had just $3 million guaranteed at signing and another $2 million guaranteed through training camp. In 2019, he made the most of his contract, earning $4 million in bonuses while elevating his 2020 salary to $8 million with a Pro Bowl appearance.
In 2019, Wagner, a former Seahawks teammate of Okung and Sherman, negotiated a three-year, $54 million extension with Seattle that made him the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker. A year later, Hopkins parted ways with his agent and represented himself in talks with the Arizona Cardinals. With a two-year extension worth $54.5 million, including $42.5 million guaranteed, Hopkins became the highest-paid nonquarterback in NFL history.
“You want to make sure that they’re treated fairly, and they get a deal that’s appropriate,” Tannenbaum said of negotiations with players who represent themselves. “That’s what’s hard. It has to be a deal that works for both sides. Optics are always part of a deal. We know that, but more so when you don’t have an agent.”
Andrew Brandt had served as a player agent before joining the Green Bay Packers’ front office in 1999 as their vice president of player finance and general counsel, where he negotiated player contracts and managed the team’s salary cap. Because of his experience as an agent, Brandt recalled, a handful of players came to him wanting to negotiate their own deal. “They trusted me,” he said.
That put Brandt in an unusual, uncomfortable position. For years he’d haggled with team officials over contracts for players like Ricky Williams and Matt Hasselbeck. Now it was his responsibility to put a dollar figure on a player’s value and tell them what it was.
“It was tough because you have to tell someone their self-worth,” said Brandt, now a Sports Illustrated columnist and executive director of Villanova’s Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law. “And you have to tell them maybe they’re not at the level they think they are. And it becomes a lot of raw emotions where an agent can be a buffer. I really appreciated the value of agents when that happened.”
Mueller, the former Saints and Dolphins GM, said he never allowed negotiations to become personal. But he acknowledged that Ravens officials would have to “tiptoe” around certain topics, taking care to consider how Jackson and those in his inner circle might receive their input. Every word, Mueller said, has to be measured.
“There’s not a perfect player in the league,” Tannenbaum said. “And if you say one thing, it could just be taken the wrong way. So it’s critical that whatever you say has to be very calibrated. But, look, Baltimore has a smart, talented, very experienced front office. And I’m sure they’re going to be able to find a landing spot.”
A waiting game
Because of Jackson’s popularity and unique negotiating posture, the former front-office executives said the Ravens would have to be especially mindful of the optics of any deal. “It behooves them to be fair and do a market contract,” Brandt said. Even with fellow fourth-year quarterbacks Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield up for extensions, Tannenbaum said new megadeals at the position would affect Jackson’s price tag only marginally.
The Ravens’ greatest leverage point is the structure of a potential extension. Mueller said the most important consideration in a team’s salary cap management is the “fixed” cost of a contract over the length of the deal. Ravens officials not only have to make room for Jackson’s salary and prorated bonus from year to year, but also devise mechanisms to create additional room for, say, tight end Mark Andrews’ potential extension.
“From a team-building standpoint, being able to control when the money is paid and when the cap is charged is beneficial in every deal,” said Mueller, a co-host of “The Football GM” podcast.
Mueller said dealing with players in contract negotiations was not unlike handling inexperienced agents. Discussions could be “clunky,” he explained, with some time spent “educating inexperience.” In Jackson’s case, a deal worth as much as $40 million per year — tied with Prescott for the second-highest annual value in league history — could be back-loaded and low on guaranteed money.
“You throw out a number like $40 million, and people attach to that, but no one focuses on the details,” Brandt said. “What are the payment schedules? Does he have a bonus? … How long does it take to get the money? Obviously, from a player’s point of view, you want it as soon as possible. And from the team point of view, you want to defer it out years, if you can. You want to have all payments in salaries [which are often not guaranteed], and not roster bonuses in March, where you have to make quick decisions on the later years.”
It’s unclear when a deal might be finalized. DeCosta said in a May radio interview on “Schein on Sports” that the Ravens hoped to address Jackson’s extension “in the coming months.” Jackson said weeks later that he hoped for a resolution “pretty soon or whenever.” He seemed as unbothered by the uncertainty as Harbaugh, who dismissed any concerns about how Jackson’s contract situation might affect his play if negotiations drag on into September.
But the longer the Ravens wait, the higher the price could go. If Mayfield or Allen signs before Jackson, their deal could mark a new threshold for Jackson. No matter who’s negotiating, Tannenbaum said, one-upmanship is unavoidable.
“There always is,” he said. “I don’t know how or where, but it could be guaranteed dollars. It could be length. It could be average per year, by $1. And oftentimes, to be candid, it’s not just the player. It could be the agent.”
In the Ravens’ case, Jackson could be both.