INDIANAPOLIS — Dozens of media members packed into the Indiana Convention Center on Wednesday as Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta fielded questions. The first he received was about Lamar Jackson. So was the second. And the third.
DeCosta said he recently met with the team’s star quarterback and that he’s “optimistic” the Ravens and Jackson will agree to a long-term contract. Coach John Harbaugh echoed the confidence. “I’m really hopeful and excited, fervently hopeful,” he said.
As they spoke, the clock ticked closer to Tuesday, the deadline for the Ravens to place Jackson under the franchise tag, which would give the 26-year-old a contract for next season but provide little stability.
It’s a rickety foundation for the face of a franchise to be on.
Meanwhile, all 32 NFL teams are gathered in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine. Many seek an elite quarterback and would be more than willing to offer draft picks to the Ravens and a hefty contract to Jackson to attract the dynamic playmaker. The team’s future with Jackson is murky, but in the coming weeks, it’ll become clearer in a hurry as league deadlines approach and demand action.
“There’s no bigger question right now and no bigger decision,” DeCosta said. “There’s no bigger challenge for this organization moving forward than this contract. So all of my effort — well, most of my effort — is focused on this. I would say the rest of it is focused on the draft and free agency.”
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Free agency begins in two weeks and the draft takes place in late April. By that point, the Ravens will have a much better picture of Jackson’s future in Baltimore — if there is one.
Asked if he’s thought much about the potential of the Ravens moving on without Jackson, Harbaugh said, “not very much.”
“As little as possible, for sure,” he said. “Our plans are for Lamar.”
Jackson has been eligible for a contract extension for two years and yet, here things stand, approaching the buzzer without a signed deal. The Ravens are stuck in a holding pattern as they must resolve Jackson’s contract dispute before moving on to some other items of offseason business. DeCosta acknowledged that the situation “does kind of create a little bit of a haze as to what the future’s going to look like with your roster.”
The would-be lucrative contract is the major story of this NFL offseason. If the Ravens and Jackson are unable to hammer out an eleventh-hour deal, they are expected to place the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player under the franchise tag. They could use the exclusive tag, paying him about $45 million for the next year and preventing other teams from signing him, or they could use the nonexclusive tag, paying him about $32 million but leaving the possibility open for other teams to offer him a deal. If the Ravens chose not to match a rival’s offer in that scenario, Baltimore would receive two first-round picks as compensation for losing Jackson. DeCosta did not say which tag the Ravens would use.
Then, there’s the possibility of a trade — which fans of opposing NFL teams crave; other general managers could be balancing their time scouting in Indianapolis with packaging a deal for Jackson. However, DeCosta didn’t want to discuss trades.
“I covet great players. And I love Lamar,” he said.
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DeCosta declined to comment on particulars of his negotiation with Jackson, who has reportedly sought a fully guaranteed contract, saying that he and Jackson have an agreement to keep details of the negotiations between them.
Although the Ravens are expected to tag Jackson by Tuesday, that probably won’t end negotiations. The sides could come to an agreement before a July 15 deadline.
But time is not on the Ravens’ side. If they tag Jackson, there is a chance he’d be unwilling to play (other stars have sat out when placed under the one-year tag, wanting a longer contract), which would leave Baltimore without a starting quarterback. Their options then become: Sign a quarterback in free agency, draft one or play backup Tyler Huntley (a restricted free agent) as the starter.
With free agency and the draft approaching, it would behoove the Ravens to have a resolution to their negotiations with Jackson sooner rather than later. Despite his stated optimism that a deal will be finalized, DeCosta said the team is “preparing for every contingency.”
Jackson’s future with the Ravens has been hazy since he and the team did not sign a contract ahead of last season and it’s remained so in the months since. As deadlines loom, though, it’s about to get a lot clearer.
Before DeCosta fielded a dozen Jackson-related questions from reporters Wednesday, he opened his remarks with a quote from one of his favorite books, “Where The Wild Things Are.”
“Let the wild rumpus begin,” he said.