Tuesday looms as the next deadline in the Ravens’ quest to reach a contract extension with quarterback Lamar Jackson.
It’s the date by which they would have to apply the franchise tag to their most important player to keep him off the free agent market, which begins March 15. In the absence of hints that a long-term deal with Jackson is imminent, most NFL observers expect the Ravens to use the tag to buy time.
But this long-anticipated move would tell us little about where the Ravens’ negotiations with Jackson are headed. Instead, it would introduce a sequence of questions destined to dominate discourse around the franchise for the foreseeable future. Here’s a look at those questions:
Exclusive or nonexclusive?
The first significant question revolves around the franchise tag itself, which comes in two forms.
Most teams opt for the exclusive tag, wishing to keep their star players off the market entirely. With that greater control comes a higher price, projected to be about $45 million for a quarterback in 2023. Teams have generally tried to avoid having franchise quarterbacks play under the tag, because the cap hit makes it difficult to do other business. But we have seen it, with Dak Prescott in Dallas in 2020 and Kirk Cousins in Washington in 2016 and 2017. Prescott ultimately signed an extension with the Cowboys. Cousins hit free agency in his prime and signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta declined Wednesday to specify which tag the team would use, but has said the team could fit $45 million for Jackson into its 2023 cap if there’s no other palatable option. “Those are big, big numbers,” he said at his season-ending news conference with coach John Harbaugh in January. “We’re fortunate, I think, that we have a better salary cap [situation] than most. We have a lot more room than most teams do, which was by design three or four years ago.”
The Ravens could also go the cheaper ($32.416 million) nonexclusive route, which would give Jackson freedom to sign an offer sheet with another team. Baltimore would have five days to match any offer and would receive two first-round picks as compensation if they let Jackson go to another team.
There are arguments for using the nonexclusive tag. If Jackson were allowed to shop for deals with other teams, he might learn that no one is willing to match or exceed the fully guaranteed $230 million Deshaun Watson received from the Cleveland Browns last offseason. Perhaps that knowledge would bring his negotiations with the Ravens to a head. But there would be risk. What if a competing suitor frontloaded its offer in a manner that would be difficult for the Ravens to match? They would be left with two draft picks that might be worth less than the haul DeCosta could obtain if he dangled Jackson on the trade market.
DeCosta said in January he has weighed the exclusive vs. nonexclusive question every day. Now, the decision is upon him.
Have the Ravens and Jackson found any traction in recent negotiations?
Harbaugh and DeCosta did not give specifics of negotiations Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine, but they said they are optimistic that a deal will get done.
DeCosta has said his driving goal is to reach an extension with the quarterback around whom the Ravens have built their offense and many of their future plans. But he offered no illusion in January that these renewed negotiations would be any easier than the talks that failed to produce an extension before last season. We don’t know the exact numbers, but multiple reports have said Jackson, who represents himself, is seeking a record-setting guaranteed deal and that the Ravens have stopped significantly short of meeting his price.
DeCosta described the delicate dance of building around Jackson the player while negotiating with Jackson the businessman: “I told Lamar that, ‘Hey, this thing has been a burden for both of us,’ I said, ‘But when this thing is over, we are going to feel like a million bucks,’ and that’s truly how I feel.”
He spoke like a man who’s ready to pursue a deal with Jackson for as a long as it takes, which, as we saw with the Cowboys and Prescott, could be another year. But will the Ravens, whether it’s next month or next year, reach a point where financial compromise with their superstar seems unreachable? Also keep in mind that we don’t know Jackson’s current thinking on the matter. He hasn’t talked to reporters since the first week in December and hasn’t addressed his contract since September.
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If negotiations haven’t progressed, might the Ravens trade Jackson before the draft?
DeCosta was unwilling to broach this subject Wednesday, but a massive trade would be on his menu of choices assuming the Ravens use the franchise tag on Jackson. He’s willing to make bold moves with key players as we saw when he flipped tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and wide receiver Marquise Brown, both unsatisfied with their roles on the Ravens, for first-round draft picks. Of course, a Jackson deal would be on a whole different scale; he’s one of the most important players in franchise history and, at the prime age of 26, one of the most electrifying talents in the NFL. In a quarterback-obsessed league, teams almost always pony up to keep such players.
But if the Ravens do not see a path to an extension, DeCosta would have to contemplate how much draft capital he could obtain for Jackson and whether it would put him in position to choose a successor at quarterback. DeCosta and Harbaugh made it clear in January they have no intention of rebuilding. The Ravens have a championship-caliber defense, a very good offensive line and one of the best running games in the league. Would they entrust this playoff-ready apparatus to a rookie quarterback or, in a stopgap scenario, to Jackson’s backup, Tyler Huntley?
There are quarterback prospects in the 2023 draft who could make the Ravens think twice. Bryce Young of Alabama makes up for his slight build with rare vision, feel and accuracy. C.J. Stroud of Ohio State is a beautiful passer. Will Levis of Kentucky has a powerful arm and a 230-pound frame to match. Anthony Richardson of Florida might have more enticing physical tools than any of them. Say the Ravens traded with the Atlanta Falcons, a team frequently linked to Jackson. Would Atlanta’s No. 8 pick put them in position to land one of these quarterbacks, or would DeCosta still have to trade up in the draft?
Baltimore Ravens Insider
These are the scenarios he would have to game out if he’s considering a megadeal in April, a week or two before the draft.
If the Ravens don’t trade Jackson, what then?
The next key date would be July 15, the deadline for reaching an extension before the franchise tag locks in for 2023. Of the eight players tagged last offseason, four reached deals before the cutoff. Jackson’s former teammate, Brown, was among those who played under the tag, and he won a Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Ravens have used the tag on seven players over the years, and several have played full seasons under it, most recently outside linebacker Matthew Judon in 2020. But they have never gone this route with a quarterback.
Jackson would be compensated well in 2023 if he signs the tag, the choice most stars have made over the years. But he would be under no obligation to make that decision quickly. He could hold out for some or most of training camp to signal his dissatisfaction with the state of negotiations. That would not be ideal for the Ravens, who will spend the summer installing a new offense under recently hired coordinator Todd Monken. At his introductory news conference, Monken praised Jackson as an “elite” talent but expressed little anxiety over the prospect of a holdout.
“Sure, he’ll be behind, but it’s still just football,” Monken said. “I think sometimes we make this out to be way too much.”
Jackson could refuse to sign the tag and sit out the entire season, as running back Le’Veon Bell did with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. But Bell’s holdout was widely viewed as a disaster, and no other stars have followed his example.
Assuming Jackson would show up at some point, the Ravens could play the 2023 season with him as their quarterback and with his unresolved contract situation hovering over everything they do. They’re used to it by now. And we could be right back here at this time next year, asking all the same questions.