Lamar Jackson will stare at two possible versions of his financial future over the next two weekends as the Ravens play the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Deshaun Watson of the Texans and Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs were the last two quarterbacks to sign gargantuan contract extensions and as such, they provide a glimpse of the context in which Jackson and the Ravens will negotiate an extension, perhaps as soon as next offseason.
The 23-year-old Jackson has resolutely said he’s focused on winning a Super Bowl, not swelling his bank account or keeping economic pace with his peers at the most scrutinized position in American sports. But the approach he and the Ravens take to negotiations will have an outsized impact on the future of the franchise.
There are many questions at play:
- Will Jackson seek long-term security, as Mahomes did with his 10-year, $450 million extension, or will he take the Watson approach and attempt to maximize his earning power through a series of shorter extensions?
- Will the Ravens move aggressively to reach an extension with Jackson after his third season in hopes of avoiding the path of the Dallas Cowboys, who ended up using their franchise tag on quarterback Dak Prescott?
- Will a Jackson extension, likely to surpass $40 million a year in annual value, make it harder for the Ravens to do business with other young stars such as left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marlon Humphrey, outside linebacker Matthew Judon and tight end Mark Andrews?
A trio of salary cap experts — a former NFL general manager, a former agent and an analyst at Pro Football Focus — agreed on one point: The Ravens have little choice but to keep up with the escalating quarterback market and build their roster around Jackson.
“You have the quarterback and then everything else is essentially a replaceable part,” said Mike Tannenbaum, an ESPN analyst and former executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins. “More of the money is going to less of the players, and that’s OK, because you have Lamar Jackson.”
Teams spend decades searching for a franchise quarterback, the one cheat code in their quest for perennial NFL contention. As a result, stars at the position rarely hit the open market in their primes. There’s an understanding that each time a player such as Watson, Mahomes or Jackson approaches extension time, he will set a record for annual compensation.
“If you’re a top NFL quarterback at the age of 26 and you come up for a new deal, you’re going to ask for No. 1 quarterback money, because you probably should get it,” said Brad Spielberger, who writes about NFL economics for Pro Football Focus. “Lamar Jackson, if he keeps playing how he’s playing, there’s no reason he should not try to top Deshaun Watson. People can try to sit back and nitpick whether he’s a top-five QB, but it doesn’t matter. That’s how the market works.”
This does not mean all franchise quarterbacks take the same approach.
Mahomes' deal generated more animated headlines because of its total value, which could exceed $500 million with incentives. But from an agent’s point of view, Mahomes left money on the table by giving the Chiefs long-term control over his earnings. Watson will make just as much new money as Mahomes over the course of his four-year, $156 million extension, and then he’ll have a chance to negotiate another extension in a market featuring even greater quarterback salaries. This supposes Watson will stay healthy and maintain superstar production, but his earning ceiling is higher.
Former agent and CBS Sports writer Joel Corry expects Jackson to use Watson’s deal, or perhaps the extension Prescott will likely sign with the Cowboys, as a jumping-off point for his negotiations with the Ravens.
“I’d call the Mahomes deal an anomaly,” he said. “I suspect Watson is going to make significantly more money over the course of his career than Mahomes. … If I’m Lamar, I throw the Mahomes deal out of the window.”
The Ravens, on the other hand, would benefit from a longer extension, shocking sticker price be damned. There’s a significant benefit to establishing a long-term fixed cost in a market that keeps rising, even as teams face the possibility of a salary-cap reduction because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every team would love to sign its star quarterback for a decade,” Spielberger said.
He and other analysts agreed the Ravens should approach Jackson’s extension with urgency. They pointed to the Cowboys' handling of Prescott as an example of what not to do. Dallas could end up paying its quarterback more than $40 million a year, significantly more than he would have cost before the 2019 season, when he was already an established Pro Bowl talent.
“If I’m Baltimore, you have your quarterback of the future, and it’s only going to get more expensive,” Tannenbaum said. “The sooner the better; you only have to look at Dallas' situation.”
The other unknown is Jackson’s representation. He and his mother, Felicia Jones, negotiated the quarterback’s rookie contract. But will they take the same approach with more money and more complicated questions at play?
Several players have recently negotiated record-breaking deals without using traditional agents. Texans tackle Laremy Tunsil reset the market at his position when he signed a three-year, $66-million extension in April. Then Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins negotiated a deal — two years for $54.5 million — that made him the highest paid non-quarterback in the league. Hopkins told The Arizona Republic he was motivated by “showing other players that you can get things done yourself if you believe in yourself and have the right team around you.”
“That’s the real interesting thing,” Corry said. “If I’m Lamar and I’m not going to hire an agent, after seeing what was done for DeAndre Hopkins and Laremy Tunsil, I find out who was advising those guys and I hire those people.”
Ravens fans shudder at memories of the six-year, $120.6 million extension Joe Flacco signed in the wake of leading his team to victory in Super Bowl XLVII. The Ravens, coming off five straight playoff appearances, reached the postseason just once in the five seasons after Flacco signed his deal. Some observers blamed these mediocre performances on the strain created by paying one player so much.
But cap experts agree the problem was not Flacco’s price tag. If he had played up to the standard he set during the team’s Super Bowl run, he would have been worth every penny.
“The rule is not don’t pay your quarterback a lot,” Spielberger said. “It’s don’t pay bad quarterbacks a lot.”
The Ravens will likely bet on Jackson, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, to surpass his predecessor. Even if he continues to improve, however, a $40 million-per-year extension would narrow the team’s margin for error in filling out the rest of its roster.
“You can still sign a lot of really good players,” Spielberger said. “Look at the Chiefs and the Texans. Teams can always work around it. What it does is it gives you fewer mistakes you’re allowed to make.”
The Ravens must decide how much they’re willing to pay Stanley, the quarterback’s All-Pro protector, who could look to match or exceed Tunsil’s record deal for a left tackle. If negotiations drag, Corry expects the Ravens to use their franchise tag for 2021 on Stanley.
Humphrey, the team’s All-Pro cornerback, would be up next, with free agency looming after the 2021 season. Jalen Ramsay just reset his market by agreeing to a five-year, $105 million extension with the Los Angeles Rams.
Andrews, whose contract does not include a fifth-year option because he was not a first-round pick, would also hit free agency after next season. He could look at the five-year, $75 million extension George Kittle signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a potential target.
Could the Ravens, who’ve always prioritized extending homegrown stars, sign these core players and maintain the roster depth that makes them a leading contender this season?
The Chiefs have done it but have benefited from several team-friendly contracts, Corry said. When the former agent looks at the Ravens' big picture, he sees Judon, playing this season under a $16.8 million franchise tag, as an odd man out. He also expects the Ravens to spend modestly at wide receiver and running back.
“Something has to give,” he said.
As these future economic issues simmer under the surface for a team with grand aspirations, don’t expect Jackson or Ravens executives to offer much comment
“My reaction — I’ve just got to win a Super Bowl,” Jackson said in July, after Mahomes signed his deal. “I don’t really focus on what he has going on, because I’ve still got to prove myself. When that time comes, then we can negotiate after the Super Bowl. But until then, I’m focused on winning right now.”
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
Line: Ravens by 7