The Ravens applied the nonexclusive franchise tag to Lamar Jackson on Tuesday, keeping their quarterback off the free agent market but giving him an opportunity to pursue a contract with another team.
Baltimore will have five days to match any offer sheet Jackson signs, or they could let him walk and receive two first-round draft picks in exchange.
“Having not yet reached a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, we will use the franchise tag,” Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta said in a statement. “There have been many instances across the league and in Baltimore when a player has been designated with the franchise tag and signed a long-term deal that same year.
“We will continue to negotiate in good faith with Lamar, and we are hopeful that we can strike a long-term deal that is fair to both Lamar and the Ravens. Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come.”
DeCosta could have used the exclusive franchise tag, projected to cost about $45 million, to keep Jackson off the market entirely. He instead opted for the roughly $32.4 million nonexclusive tag, a decision he said he had weighed every day for months.
The move does not preclude the Ravens from signing Jackson, 26, to an extension before a July 17 deadline and seems to indicate they are confident they could match any offer he receives from another team.
“It’s a calculated risk. I wouldn’t have done it,” said Joel Corry, a CBS Sports commentator and former NFL agent. “I would have put the exclusive on him to make sure there’s no chance, no matter how small, that anyone would potentially sign him to an offer sheet where I might have to match a contract I don’t want to.”
Corry does not see an obvious team that would offer Jackson a massive, fully guaranteed deal, especially after reports surfaced that the quarterback-needy Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Washington Commanders and Las Vegas Raiders will not pursue him.
Corry said DeCosta is likely confident he could match any offer: “He probably did some due diligence and figured out potential suitors and thinks that there isn’t anyone willing to do what Lamar wants.”
Brad Spielberger, an attorney who writes about the salary cap for Pro Football Focus, agreed the Ravens are betting on a limited market for Jackson: “I think they are trying to, in a roundabout way, get the message out to Lamar that, ‘Hey, we think if we give you a nonexclusive, you think some team is going to sign you to the [fully guaranteed] Deshaun Watson contract, and we think you’re wrong.’”
Spielberger called the move a “huge gamble” because the Ravens could be outbid and would receive less compensation — the aforementioned two first-round picks — than they could obtain for Jackson in a trade.
“I do think there is a team that’s desperate enough to sign him to a Deshaun Watson-esque deal,” said Spielberger, referring to the five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract the Cleveland Browns quarterback agreed to last offseason.
After more than a year of stalled negotiations, the issue could come to a head quickly if a team meets Jackson’s asking price. The Ravens could be forced to pay more guaranteed money than they had hoped to keep Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, or they could say goodbye to the player who was supposed to be central to their plans for years to come. Or perhaps Jackson, who represents himself, will not find the deal he wants on the open market and will return to his financial standoff with the Ravens.
Jackson, a two-time Pro Bowl selection still in the prime of his career, will be able to start shopping for a deal Monday and could sign an offer sheet once free agency starts March 15.
If the Ravens do not match the offer, they would receive the next two first-round picks of the team signing Jackson. But there’s no guarantee Jackson would sign an offer sheet before the 2023 draft. He has until the Tuesday after Week 10 of the regular season to sign an offer with another team or sign the franchise tender and play for the Ravens.
The Ravens cannot trade Jackson, as they would have been able to do if they had applied an exclusive franchise tag, unless he signs the franchise tender. A sign-and-trade could be an option for a team such as the Miami Dolphins, who could not immediately sign Jackson — a native of Pompano Beach, Florida — to an offer sheet because they don’t have a 2023 first-round pick.
Most teams that use the franchise tag go the exclusive route; DeCosta is gambling that his decision will prompt a long-term deal with Jackson and/or leave the Ravens in a stronger financial position to build their team for next season.
When he spoke with reporters last week at the NFL scouting combine, DeCosta acknowledged the difficulty of building for the 2023 season with so much uncertainty hovering around Jackson.
“It is a wrench,” DeCosta said. “We don’t know, and so, yeah, it slows you up a little bit. It does kind of create a little bit of a haze as to what the future’s going to look like with your roster.”
At their season-ending news conference in January, DeCosta and Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged the complexity of ongoing negotiations with Jackson but said the franchise remains determined to build its future around the dynamic quarterback.
“Everything we’ve done in terms of building our offense and building our team, how we think in terms of [bringing in] people and putting people around him is based on this incredible young man, his talent, his ability and his competitiveness,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll have my fingers crossed, and my toes crossed, and I’ll be saying prayers. I have every faith that it’s going to get done, and we have the best people in the world doing it. Eric DeCosta, there’s nobody better. Eric wants him here, I want him here, [Ravens owner] Steve [Bisciotti] wants him here, and Lamar wants to be here. So, it’s going to work out.”
Jackson is the eighth player in Ravens history to be franchise-tagged, and several of his predecessors, most recently outside linebacker Matthew Judon in 2020, have played full seasons under the tag. But the Ravens have never been in this position with a quarterback.
Teammates have been clear about what they want.
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“You can’t let a guy like him go,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “I know it’s football and there’s always some new exciting toy, a new exciting kid that has potential to go out there and be great, but this is a for sure, a known. You know Lamar Jackson is an incredible player. I think it’s in the best interest of the Ravens organization to give him a long-term contract and make him our guy.”
Tight end Mark Andrews joked at the Pro Bowl that he would donate his paycheck to keep Jackson in town.
The one key party who has said little is Jackson, who has not spoken to reporters since the Friday before he suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first weekend of December. The Ravens made the playoffs and pushed the Cincinnati Bengals to the limit in the wild-card round with Tyler Huntley at quarterback. But the uncertainty around Jackson’s next step loomed over every game he did not play.
He last addressed his contract situation in September, when he and the Ravens did not reach an extension agreement before the season opener.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked whether a deal was close. “I don’t know.”
If an extension remains elusive — four of the eight players tagged last season reached long-term deals — the superstar quarterback will have decisions to make. He could hold out at the start of training camp, as other players have done under similar circumstances. Or he could take the more extreme step of refusing to sign the tag and sitting out the season, as running back Le’Veon Bell did in a standoff with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018.
The Ravens answered one question by placing the franchise tag on Jackson but opened the door to many more.