The weather forecast for Phoenix this weekend features clear skies and comfortable temperatures. The same sunny outlook can’t be given for the state of the Ravens as their leadership prepares for the NFL’s annual owners meetings in the Valley of the Sun beginning Sunday and running through Wednesday.
General manager Eric DeCosta, coach John Harbaugh and team president Sashi Brown, who replaced longtime president Dick Cass last March, will all be there. Owner Steve Bisciotti, whose preference is to stay out of the spotlight and let DeCosta & Co. answer the questions, is not expected to attend.
Harbaugh will speak Monday, along with other coaches from the AFC, while the NFC coaches will meet with the media on Tuesday.
The last we heard from Harbaugh or DeCosta, whose fifth draft as GM awaits next month, was during the NFL scouting combine earlier this month when both made it clear they would like Lamar Jackson to be the Ravens’ quarterback long-term.
“We want Lamar [Jackson] here,” DeCosta said then. “We think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
“Living in a world without a quarterback is a bad world to live in, and I think there are a lot of GMs and coaches who would probably say that who are living in that world right now.”
Added Harbaugh: “Our plans are for Lamar. … When we went through a process with the offensive coordinator position … all those interviews were based on Lamar being the quarterback. ‘If Lamar’s the quarterback, how are we going to build the offense?’ So, that’s the direction that we’re planning for.”
As the calendar nears April, however, that direction remains cloudy at best, with Jackson having been issued — but not yet signed — a $32.4 million nonexclusive franchise tag. While he’s free to negotiate with other teams, the 26-year-old has yet to sign an offer sheet with another club.
Things then took a strange turn Thursday when the NFL issued a memo instructing all 32 teams not to negotiate with a Florida man named Ken Francis, who is not an NFL Players Association-certified agent but had reportedly been contacting teams on Jackson’s behalf. Jackson and Francis both denied the allegation.
Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, teams are only allowed to negotiate with a player acting on his own behalf or with a certified agent.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have remained largely quiet during free agency. It wasn’t until Friday that they added their first free agent outside their own organization, agreeing to a deal with wide receiver Nelson Agholor reportedly worth $3.25 million that includes another $3 million in incentives. Entering Friday, only six teams had less salary cap space than the Ravens’ $6.77 million, according to Over The Cap, and those numbers will shrink even more.
The Agholor addition was hardly a big splash. He’ll turn 30 in May and is coming off a season in which he caught just 31 passes for 362 yards and two touchdowns and battled a hamstring injury.
All of this serves as an uneasy backdrop for Ravens brass after a 10-7 record and first-round playoff exit last season coupled with major questions looming about Jackson, free agency, the draft and more.
What is the latest on the Ravens’ negotiations with Jackson for a long-term deal?
DeCosta said earlier this month that he “recently” met with Jackson. “We both understand the urgency of the situation; it’s been a good dialogue, a good discussion,” DeCosta said at the combine. “I’m optimistic.”
DeCosta also said the two forged an agreement two years ago that the GM was not going to talk publicly about any discussions surrounding the contract. Jackson, meanwhile, hasn’t spoken to reporters since Dec. 2, though he did recently tease an upcoming interview on his entertainment company’s YouTube channel.
It would be surprising if there’s any clarity on the situation anytime soon with myriad options at Jackson’s disposal. If no other offers come, Jackson and the Ravens have until July 17 to work out the lucrative long-term deal Jackson seeks — if he does indeed want to stay in Baltimore. If he does sign an offer from another team, the Ravens would have five days to match it. He could also play on the tag and hold out all the way until the start of the regular season and still get the full $32.416 million. Or he could just decide to not play at all next season and try to force the Ravens to trade him.
What about accusations of collusion by NFL owners?
With no team having come forward with an offer sheet for Jackson — and multiple teams reportedly having no interest in pursuing the star quarterback — it didn’t take long before allegations of collusion by NFL owners emerged as a way of reigning in guaranteed contracts after Deshaun Watson got a five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed deal from the Cleveland Browns last year.
“No way this is not collusion bro,” Seattle Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs tweeted. “None of the teams with bad QB’s don’t even wanna talk to him about a deal? A MVP who is still in his prime? Yeah aight!”
Though Jackson has never specifically said he wants as much guaranteed money as Watson, the speculation is that he wants something similar. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith also took aim at the league’s owners last week, saying in a statement that he hasn’t seen a situation like Jackson’s in his nearly 15 years in the role. Smith blasted owners, saying they “hate” fully guaranteed contracts because “they are better for the players than they are for the owners.” Bisciotti said at last year’s NFL owners meetings that Watson’s deal was “groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”
Ravens executive vice president Ozzie Newsome echoed the quandary Baltimore is in. “Every club has to do what they have to do with contracts,” Newsome said on “The Bernie Kosar Show.” “I don’t worry about what other people do, but our owner did say that contract did create some problems. We have to figure out if that’s going to be the norm or is that an outlier. We don’t know.”
What are the solutions at wide receiver and cornerback/secondary?
These are the Ravens’ two biggest needs by their own admission, but a shrinking market and a lack of salary cap space are again problematic.
Over the past three seasons, the Ravens ranked last in the NFL in receiving yards by wide receivers by a significant margin. On defense, they gave up the seventh-most passing yards per game last season and produced only four interceptions from the cornerback position, with three of those by Marlon Humphrey.
Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, who recently visited with the Ravens, according to multiple reports, would be a much-needed addition. The 26-year-old graded out as the league’s fifth-best shutdown corner with the Las Vegas Raiders last season, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, but he might be expensive with a projected annual value at $10.8 million, per Spotrac. That would likely require some restructuring of other players’ contracts to fit him under the cap.
Free agent safety Adrian Amos also visited the team Thursday, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. Amos, a Baltimore native and former Calvert Hall star, spent the past four seasons with the Green Bay Packers and would fill a void left by Chuck Clark after the defensive signal-caller was traded to the New York Jets. But after a three-year run in which Amos’ 89.5 grade by Pro Football Focus ranked him fourth among safeties, he plummeted to a 53.4 grade last season.
On offense, the addition of Agholor could help. The 6-foot, 198-pound speedster gives Jackson a viable deep threat when healthy, but he’s caught more than 48 passes in a season only twice in eight years and has only two seasons in which he’s caught more than four touchdown passes.
Translation: They’ll continue to address these needs, but with just five draft picks, a lack of cap space and dwindling options in the free agent market, there are a lot of questions and not a lot of answers for Baltimore.
What about the draft?
As mentioned, the Ravens have just five picks in next month’s NFL draft in Kansas City — Nos. 22 (first round), 86 (third round), 124 (fourth round), 157 (fifth round) and 199 (sixth round). You have to go back more than two decades, to 1999, for the last time they had so few picks. Still, it’s expected they’ll target cornerback and wide receiver, especially early.
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Two possibilities at corner are Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon and Maryland’s Deonte Banks. Zay Flowers, a 5-foot-9 speedster who had 78 catches for 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns for Boston College, is also a possibility at receiver, particularly given his all-around skill set that includes much-improved route running. What other positions will they target with so few picks?
How do the Ravens avoid being in the same position with Jackson a year from now?
The Ravens have three options with Jackson: sign him to the long-term deal he desires, let him sign with another team in exchange for two first-round draft picks or trade him. But of all the potential scenarios surrounding their star quarterback, it’s very possible the Ravens and Jackson are right back here a year from now, with Baltimore franchise tagging him again.
It’s a move the Ravens have employed twice before, with cornerback Chris McAlister in 2003 and 2004 and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs in 2008 and 2009. It’s not unreasonable to think they’ll do it a third time — even though it would come with a 20% raise for Jackson.
What other topics will be discussed at the annual meeting?
Expect discussions centering around rules change proposals, concussions and player safety, the state of the Washington Commanders ownership and officiating.
The Sports Business Journal also reported Thursday that the league is prepping an owner vote to start flex scheduling Amazon Prime’s “Thursday Night Football.”