With Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson declining to talk Wednesday about his suspended contract talks — “I’m focused on the Dolphins now,” he told reporters — his last public comments on the matter this year could, appropriately enough, be about the issue of guaranteed money.
After Sunday’s season-opening win over the New York Jets, a reporter asked Jackson whether he’d turned down an offer of a “$250 million guaranteed contract.”
“Fully guaranteed?” Jackson asked, grinning. “No. No, there’s no truth to that.” His postgame news conference ended there, and Jackson returned to the Ravens’ locker room.
Guaranteed money proved an intractable issue during the last round of negotiations, which were halted Friday. According to a team source who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter, Jackson was seeking a fully guaranteed deal as he entered the final year of his rookie contract.
Jackson told ESPN after Sunday’s game that he turned down an extension that had $160 million to $180 million guaranteed. The total value of the reported five-year offer was more than $250 million, a higher average annual value than the extensions signed this summer by two Pro Bowl quarterbacks, the Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson and Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray.
Both megadeals established new benchmarks for contract value behind the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, whose $50.3 million-per-year deal leads all quarterbacks. In July, Murray agreed to a five-year, $230.5 million extension ($46.1 million annually). On Sept. 1, Wilson finalized a five-year, $245 million extension ($49.5 million annually).
Perhaps just as important as the size of the market-setting contracts was the size of their guarantees. Murray got $160 million in guaranteed money. Wilson, whom the Broncos had traded away significant draft capital to acquire in March, affording them little leverage in contract talks, got $165 million guaranteed.
A lot of guaranteed money, yes, but not fully guaranteed. In the four-plus years since Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins signed the NFL’s first lucrative, fully guaranteed contract — a three-year, $84 million deal — only one quarterback has signed a top-of-the-market deal with total financial security. If Jackson doesn’t ultimately sign a similar long-term contract, the five-year, $230 million deal that Deshaun Wilson received from the Cleveland Broncos in March could prove anomalous.
“If you just look at it, we’ve got a large number of deals done over the last, say, three years,” former Philadelphia Eagles team president and Cleveland Browns CEO Joe Banner said in an interview. “There’s been a large number of deals done in the last few months. And we only have one deal that’s fully guaranteed.
“Now, you can fight for it if you want, but you’re obviously the one not kind of accepting the market as a whole. It’s just cherry-picking one deal that reflects what you would like to get. Which you have every right to do. You can’t really argue that, ‘I’m just waiting for what the market is.’ No, the market had a lot of large number of deals over a few years, and even a group of deals over a few months, that tells us what the current market is. And they say: Deshaun Watson is the exception when it comes to guaranteed money, not the rule.”
Banner, a co-founder of The 33rd Team, a “football think tank” featuring former league executives, coaches and players, said the percentage of contracts that teams are willing to guarantee has increased in recent years. All 32 first-round picks in April’s draft reportedly received fully guaranteed four-year deals.
But unlike in the NBA, where most deals are fully guaranteed, NFL veterans without long-term contract security can be released before their contract expires. When the Ravens cut safety Tony Jefferson after the 2019 season, for instance, they did not owe him the final $7 million in salary left on his four-year, $34 million contract. Their only penalty was the $4.7 million charge they incurred in “dead money.”
Jackson has shrugged off suggestions that he’s taking a financial risk by playing this season without an extension secured. Barring a calamitous injury, the Ravens are expected to designate Jackson with a franchise tag next offseason — the exclusive tag would be worth about $45 million in 2023 — if they can’t agree on a deal when talks resume.
But Banner said the threat of injuries in a sport as violent as football is a persistent obstacle to guaranteed contracts.
“If you have players in a very physical sport that get hurt, that naturally descend [in performance] with age, and the effect on the quality of play can be further affected by frequency of injuries in the sport, then it’s totally different than baseball and basketball,” Banner said. “And that needs to be accounted for in how the deals are done and structured.”
While Jackson is representing himself in contract negotiations, a rarity for a player of his stature, the NFL Players Association has reportedly advised Jackson that, given his performance (two Pro Bowl appearances and 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player honors) and age (25), he is justified to demand a fully guaranteed contract.
Jackson declined to comment Wednesday on his discussions with the players’ union, but his negotiations could have outsize ramifications. Banner said another fully guaranteed deal could “nudge” the market for player contracts forward, helping future generations of players earn a higher share of guaranteed money.
Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell, a member of the NFLPA’s executive committee, said Jackson could help “pave the way” for NFL contracts, as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did for the NBA.
“Every [NBA] contract’s guaranteed because of the people that came before them,” Campbell said Wednesday. “That’s kind of a really cool setup when you learn the history. It’s like, ‘Yo, it really came down to star players demanding guaranteed contracts, and then everybody else kind of followed suit. That became the norm.’ And same thing in baseball.
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“So I think that it does take the quarterbacks to kind of create that environment where everything is fully guaranteed. And Kirk Cousins has done it. And so I think the more people that do it ... with Watson getting it done, I think that’s impressive. So if Lamar can get it done, that’d be even better for the overall concept of athletes and guaranteed contracts.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 3 1/2