At his first news conference in over five months, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson spoke for about 10 minutes. He took nearly 40 questions from reporters Thursday as a handful of Ravens officials, including team president Sashi Brown, looked on. He joked about his new restaurant’s name. He marveled at rookie center Tyler Linderbaum’s speed.
And he was asked, over and over, about his future in Baltimore.
“It’s a conversation,” Jackson said of his contract negotiations with team officials, including general manager Eric DeCosta. “That’s all. We’re just keeping it private.”
As the Ravens wrapped up their three-day mandatory minicamp and headed into the offseason, their most important player walked away from a crowded podium in Owings Mills having answered some questions, danced around others and raised new ones.
Jackson, who’s entering the final year of his rookie contract, reiterated early in his first question-and-answer session since Jan. 10 that he expects to play in Baltimore for the rest of his career. “Yes,” he said, “I do.” Asked shortly thereafter whether contract discussions, which restarted this week, could continue into the regular season, Jackson said, “We’re having conversations.”
He used a variation of that line eight times when probed about the specifics of his negotiations, even when it appeared to contradict other statements he made Thursday. At one point, Jackson said he didn’t “buy into” the notion that, with his dual-threat style of play in the Ravens’ run-heavy offense, he shouldn’t play without having his financial future secured. “I play football,” the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player said. “That’s what I’m here for.”
At another point, Jackson said he plans to meet with his receivers before training camp at Florida Atlantic University, continuing the offseason workouts he started with wideouts Rashod Bateman and James Proche II in February. “We’re going to work, watch some film and just build our chemistry some more,” he said.
But asked whether he’d still play in the Ravens’ season opener without an extension, Jackson said, “We’re in conversation right now,” and chuckled. Not long after, asked again whether he’d participate in the team’s training camp, which starts in late July, or play in Week 1 without a new deal, he declined to commit. “We’re having a conversation about it,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, players face stiff penalties for skipping training camp practices. Teams are required to fine players who aren’t on rookie contracts — which includes Jackson, who is on his fifth-year option — $50,000 per day for absences. DeCosta said in March that he didn’t expect Jackson to hold out.
Jackson is set to make $23 million this season, a significant raise from his first four years in Baltimore. A contract extension would likely be worth over $40 million annually, easily the richest deal in franchise history and among the biggest in the NFL.
In answering questions about his readiness for a deal and the scope of a possible framework, Jackson seemed to push back on some of owner Steve Bisciotti’s comments from March. At the NFL owners meetings, Bisciotti had told reporters that Jackson is “so obsessed with winning a Super Bowl that I think, deep down, he doesn’t think he’s worthy. I think he wants that to say, ‘Now I deserve to be on top.’ People can speculate any way they want. I don’t think he is turned on by money that much and he knows it’s coming one way or the other.”
On Thursday, Jackson said he feels worthy of a new deal, but added: “I still want my Super Bowl, though.”
Bisciotti also had called Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal “groundbreaking,” and acknowledged that it would make some negotiations harder. “I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract,” Bisciotti said.
Jackson, one of the few NFL players to represent himself in contract negotiations, said Thursday that Watson’s deal hadn’t changed his thinking on how to proceed. “I’m a man of my own,” he said. “I don’t worry about what those guys get.”
In February, DeCosta said the team was moving at “Lamar’s pace” in contract negotiations. Over the past year, Ravens officials have said they remain committed to signing Jackson to a long-term extension. If a deal cannot be reached, the team is expected to place the franchise tag on him next year.
With Jackson absent from the team’s voluntary practices in organized team activities, however, the state of the Ravens’ contract talks was again scrutinized. Jackson said Thursday that his decision to skip OTAs for the first time in his career was not contract-related.
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“I just wanted to stay away and just grind,” he said. “I just wanted to come back and just see how it felt. I feel good. I asked my guys how they’d feel if I stayed home. They were like, ‘You know, it’s cool.’ You know, I want to get some chemistry. They tell me, ‘I want to get some chemistry.’ I’m like, ‘Man, we’re going to get that regardless when we get back.’”
Jackson reported to minicamp Monday at a bulked-up 220 pounds, and he impressed in his first three practices since the trade of wide receiver and close friend Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. Quarterbacks coach James Urban said it was clear that Jackson had “handled his business when he was away from us.”
Despite throwing three interceptions over the three days, Jackson impressed with his accuracy and his rhythm in coordinator Greg Roman’s slightly revamped offense. His deep balls rarely fluttered, and he needed little time to reconnect with top targets like tight end Mark Andrews and Bateman.
“As far as the throwing and the catching and the targeting and all that, and what you’re saying — the playmaking stuff — I was happy to see that,” coach John Harbaugh said. “And I was wondering about it — how’s he going to look? To see it look that good, to see the shape he was in, how well he threw the ball, that was all … for a coach, that’s exciting.”
“There’s only been one Lamar Jackson ever in this league,” Proche said. “And the fact that the media disrespects him the way that they do is, what I said earlier, barbaric.”
Urban called Jackson a “master” at ignoring “outside distractions.” With five-plus weeks to prepare for training camp, it’s unclear how contract negotiations will fit into his offseason plans. On Thursday, Jackson said a lot, but also not much.
“Football season’s here,” he said at the end of his session. “So we’re going to grind right now.”