Over 300 players were invited to this week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. None will command the Ravens’ attention as much as the quarterback they already have.
With the window to designate Lamar Jackson with the franchise tag closing soon — general manager Eric DeCosta has until March 7 to offer an exclusive tender (worth a projected $45 million) or a non-exclusive tender ($32.4 million) for 2023 — Jackson’s future in Baltimore could be a topic du jour among the packs of team executives huddling in the city’s restaurants and bars.
What would it take for the Ravens to sign Jackson to a long-term deal? What would it take for the Ravens to apply the non-exclusive tag and risk losing Jackson for just two first-round picks? What would it take for the Ravens to tag Jackson and then trade him away?
“I don’t know how you really conduct business if you are Baltimore right now until you get an answer kind of one way or the other” on Jackson’s future, former Ravens scout and current NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said in a conference call Friday. “Whether or not you’re going to be able to come close on a deal and feel like you can get something done there, you’ve got to start planning around that.”
There’s a lot on the Ravens’ to-do list in Indianapolis. Here’s a look at what’s next in their pivotal offseason.
Gauge trade interest
DeCosta declined last month to say whether the Ravens would entertain trade offers for Jackson, preferring to focus on the team’s negotiations toward a long-term deal. But it never hurts to listen, and there’s no easier place to meet with suitors than the combine.
Over the past four years, a handful of notable quarterback trades have been finalized in March and April, just weeks after the combine wraps up and just as the NFL’s new league year begins. Among the notable deals:
- In March 2019, the Ravens traded Joe Flacco to the Denver Broncos for a fourth-round pick, while the Miami Dolphins traded Ryan Tannehill to the Tennessee Titans for two Day 3 draft picks.
- In March 2020, the Jacksonville Jaguars traded Nick Foles for a fourth-round pick.
- In April 2021, the the New York Jets traded Sam Darnold for three draft picks, including a second-rounder.
- In March 2022, the Seattle Seahawks traded Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos for Drew Lock and a haul of draft picks, including two first-rounders, while the Houston Texans traded Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns for six draft picks, including three first-rounders.
A quarterback with Jackson’s credentials almost never becomes available. No NFL Most Valuable Player-winning quarterback has been traded before age 30. If the Ravens and Jackson, 26, who’s representing himself, refuse to budge any further in negotiations after two-plus years of talks, DeCosta could seek a hard reset at the position with a treasure trove of draft assets.
“If you are this far apart and it’s a philosophical difference in terms of guarantees, then you have to start at least thinking about the possibility and planning for a future where he wouldn’t be there,” Jeremiah said. “Whether that entails seeing what the value is on the trade market — and I think you would have to do your due diligence to at least see what it is, as well as potentially planning for the future if there’s a quarterback that you like at some point in the draft — whenever that is, you might start having to plan for that as well. So it’s a tricky spot that Eric is in right there, but I think clarity one way or the other is going to be your friend. You just don’t want to go into this thing not knowing if you have a chance of getting a deal done.”
Evaluate QB market
If the Ravens do trade Jackson this offseason, their replacement could be an in-house call-up. Backup Tyler Huntley, a pending restricted free agent, had a solid QBR of 55.0 in 2021 before falling to 41.3 last season, when he dealt with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder.
More likely, though, Jackson’s successor would have to be acquired — and propped up in ways that Jackson never needed to be.
The draft is one avenue. But the Ravens would have to wait until late April, and even then might have to move up in the first round to find a franchise quarterback-caliber option. Ahead of the combine, Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud and Kentucky’s Will Levis are all consensus top-10 picks. Florida’s Anthony Richardson, an athletically gifted if inexperienced prospect, could soon merit similar consideration.
Free agency and the trade market would offer more immediate relief. Jacoby Brissett, who impressed as a placeholder for Watson in Cleveland, is a pending free agent. So is Jimmy Garoppolo, who suffered a season-ending foot injury last season for the San Francisco 49ers. The Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill could be a salary cap casualty. Elsewhere, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield wouldn’t cost much as rentals.
Put together draft board
The Ravens have just five draft picks, and only two in the first three rounds. The last time they ended a draft with five or fewer selections was also the only time in franchise history: 1999, when they took cornerback Chris McAlister in the first round, wide receiver Brandon Stokley and guard Edwin Mulitalo in the fourth round and safety Anthony Poindexter in the seventh round.
DeCosta last month called it a “hell of a draft. Every single guy contributed right away.” But the Ravens have always sought comfort in numbers. DeCosta said last year that the team’s goal is to have nine to 12 picks every year.
“Every draft is different,” he said last month. “Ultimately, we’d love to have more picks; I think most years we do. Sometimes what we find is if you have too many picks over a three or four-year span, it’s hard for all those guys to make the team and contribute. … My goal, my mentality, is to take every one of those picks this year and nail every single one of those picks.”
With a potential deal for Jackson constraining the Ravens’ salary cap space, DeCosta will need to find some more instant-impact rookies. At No. 22 overall, the Ravens have been primarily linked to wide receivers, a group that Jeremiah said is weaker than usual, as well as cornerbacks, a relatively stronger group of prospects.
But with significant roster turnover expected at running back, along the defensive line and at linebacker either this offseason or next, the Ravens will again have to cast a wide net.