Over the final month of the Ravens’ offseason workout program, with questions hanging over his future in Baltimore, quarterback Lamar Jackson took a path that was at once controversial and defensible.
The team’s practices during its three weeks of organized team activities were voluntary, so Jackson, for the first time in his career, skipped them. “I just wanted to stay away and just grind,” he said Thursday. He added: “I asked my guys how they would feel if I stayed home. They were like, ‘It’s cool.’”
The team’s three-day minicamp in Owings Mills last week was mandatory, with unexcused absences carrying a potential fine of over $95,000. So Jackson attended minicamp and practiced every day.
Now, as Jackson and the Ravens look ahead to the start of training camp in late July, the organization’s most pressing question has become: What’s next? Team officials resumed contract negotiations last week with Jackson, who said after practice Thursday that he wants to remain in Baltimore. But with his rookie contract set to expire after this season, Jackson was asked whether he would attend training camp or play in the season opener without a new deal finalized.
“We’re having conversations about it,” Jackson said, repeating his version of a nonanswer that he gave to several contract-related questions. “I don’t know.”
Jackson’s next move could be as controversial as it is defensible: a training camp “hold-in.”
Under the NFL’s latest collective bargaining agreement, ratified in 2020, players who refuse to attend training camp face stiff penalties. Teams are required to fine players who aren’t on rookie contracts $50,000 per day for absences. (That would include Jackson, who’s set to play on a fifth-year option worth $23 million.) Because training camp technically runs from a team’s mandatory reporting date through the Sunday before its first regular-season game, holdouts can cost veterans over $2 million.
With little recourse, players in search of a new deal have shown up to training camp. If they want to protest, their new stage is the field: Hold-ins report to the team facility but not necessarily to practice. Amid a contract dispute last year, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard arrived at Miami’s training camp having channeled his inner Marshawn Lynch. “I am just here so I don’t get fined,” he wrote on Instagram, “and will handle myself like professionals do.”
If Jackson and the Ravens can’t reach a new deal during the NFL’s summer hiatus, last year’s class of hold-ins might’ve offered a preview of several paths to contract resolution.
In Miami, Howard returned to practice Aug. 7, a day before his base salary of $12.8 million was fully guaranteed and a maximum of $3.5 million in incentives were added to his contract.
In Seattle, Seahawks safety Jamal Adams and offensive tackle Duane Brown both started camp as hold-ins. On Aug. 17, Adams agreed to a four-year, $70 million contract extension, including $38 million guaranteed, that made him the NFL’s highest-paid safety. Hours later, he was back at practice.
“He’s studied like crazy, been with us the whole time, all through Zooms, all through all of our work he’s been with us. It’s not like he’s been out in left field somewhere,” coach Pete Carroll told reporters. “So he knows what’s going on. He’s got to get his feet on the ground and the timing of speaking and communicating and all the things that they have to do. It’ll come.”
Brown’s wait was longer and far less lucrative. His hold-in ended Sept. 6, just six days before Seattle’s season opener. On Sept. 7, Brown’s contract, which had just one year remaining, was restructured to have a maximum value of $12 million and include an injury protection benefit.
But no standoff might’ve set the stage for Jackson’s next move better than T.J. Watt’s. The Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker entered training camp last year as a two-time first-team All-Pro. Watt had had the fifth year on his rookie contract exercised but was seeking a new deal.
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Amid contract negotiations, Watt attended every training camp practice but didn’t fully participate. During team drills, where the risk for injury was higher, Watt would work with Pittsburgh’s strength and conditioning coaches.
Extension talks dragged into the first week of the regular season, when Watt’s hold-in ended as he rejoined the team for practice. Just days before the Steelers’ self-imposed contract deadline of the season opener, he signed a four-year extension worth $112 million, including a $35 million signing bonus, with $80 million guaranteed. The deal made Watt the NFL’s highest-paid defender.
“When you go through something like this, and you’re trying to stand up for what you believe in and you’re doing it by yourself, having reassurance from the people that you care about their opinion the most means a lot,” Watt said, alluding to messages of support that Steelers teammates had voiced throughout his contract talks. “And there are definitely some moments through this whole process where you do feel like you’re almost by yourself. And that’s why it’s so important that those guys said those nice things.”
When asked whether he would’ve considered sitting out Week 1 without a new deal, Watt told reporters: “I’m glad we didn’t get to that point.”
After his atypical offseason, could Jackson consider a similar approach? He said Thursday that he plans to work out with Ravens receivers in South Florida ahead of training camp, and he pushed back on the notion that his style of play would make him more eager to secure his financial future. “I don’t buy into it at all,” he said. “I play football; that’s what I’m here for.”
As the Ravens wrapped up minicamp Thursday, owner Steve Bisciotti addressed the team on its practice fields. “He asked them for no drama,” coach John Harbaugh said, referring to the team’s looming monthlong break.
“I don’t have any concerns about these guys at all,” Harbaugh continued, “but we look forward to seeing them in a few weeks.”