On Thursday, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and coach John Harbaugh insisted there was no need to worry about Lamar Jackson, even after a stretch that suggested there was at least a little to worry about. Everything, they explained, was all right with their star quarterback — their relationship, his health, their chances of a bright future in Baltimore.
Ahead of a crucial offseason dimmed, for now, by the uncertainty of Jackson’s next move, the Ravens needed a reassuring end-of-season news conference. They also needed a sales pitch for the rest of the NFL.
DeCosta and Harbaugh’s optimism Thursday spoke to the scale of their task ahead. Jackson, a pending free agent, is in line for a potentially record-breaking deal — if not in Baltimore, then elsewhere. And whether Jackson signs a contract extension, gets a one-year franchise tag tender or agrees to a trade in the coming months, the Ravens cannot afford to devalue their franchise’s most important asset.
“I truly believe Lamar wants to finish his career in Baltimore,” DeCosta said during the team’s 45-plus-minute presser at its Owings Mills facility.
Speculation will persist that Jackson wants out, or that the Ravens can’t afford to keep him under the salary cap. Jackson hasn’t commented publicly since he sprained his knee in early December. His decision to address his injury on social media ahead of the team’s AFC wild-card-round game surprised Harbaugh, whose optimism about a potential return faded over his quarterback’s prolonged absence. Jackson later missed the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, reportedly because of illness.
Ravens teammates stumped for his return Monday, acknowledging the severity of his injury and underlining his importance to the team. Harbaugh and DeCosta, who’ve long voiced their intent to keep Jackson long term, said Thursday that they remain committed.
“Lamar Jackson is our quarterback; he’s been our quarterback,” said Harbaugh, who said he was “200%” behind Jackson remaining the team’s centerpiece player. “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. … All he wants to do is win at everything he does. Yes, he has a lot of talent, he’s a very bright guy, he has a big heart, but he’s just a massive competitor.”
DeCosta said he spoke Thursday with Jackson, who’d agreed in September to suspend contract negotiations until after the season. He said he has a “great relationship” with Jackson, who represents himself in contract talks, but would not handicap the Ravens’ chances of reaching a long-term deal. Negotiations reached an impasse last year over Jackson’s reported insistence on a fully guaranteed deal, which DeCosta also declined to comment on.
“Lamar’s a unique guy,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not beating to everybody’s drum. He does his own thing the way he wants to do it.”
If the Ravens can’t reach a deal by March 7, they’re expected to designate Jackson with the franchise tag to keep him from reaching free agency. An exclusive franchise tag would cost about $45 million against the salary cap, significantly limiting the team’s financial flexibility this offseason. A nonexclusive tag would cost a projected $32.5 million and allow Jackson to engage in contract talks with other teams. If he signed an offer sheet with another team, the Ravens could match or receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.
If the Ravens tag Jackson, they would have until July 15 to sign him to an extension, after which he would have to play under the tag. Jackson could be tagged only once more, at a marked-up price in 2024, before reaching free agency in 2025.
DeCosta declined to say whether the Ravens would entertain trade offers for him, saying they were focused on negotiations.
“Now, you can say, ‘What’s it like negotiating?’ That’s a challenge because that’s a business relationship,” DeCosta said. “Anytime you negotiate with anybody, it’s not always going to be an easy conversation had, but that doesn’t affect our feelings for each other or John’s feelings for Lamar or the organization’s feelings for Lamar every single day, his teammates.
“We all understand this is a business transaction. That’s the challenge, really, for a player representing himself, I think. We have to keep those two personalities separate: the Lamar Jackson, the agent, versus Lamar Jackson, the player.”
A trade package would have to be substantial. To acquire quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans last year, the Cleveland Browns gave up three first-round picks and two mid-round picks. The Denver Broncos traded away two first-round picks, two second-round picks and three players for then-Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
The Jackson the Ravens have seen and the Jackson they depicted Thursday could fetch even more. Jackson was named NFL Most Valuable Player in 2019, earned his second Pro Bowl honor in 2021 and was again in MVP consideration over the first half of this past season, when the Ravens had one of the league’s best offenses despite missing a handful of key starters.
Injuries, though, have been Jackson’s biggest hurdle. He missed the Ravens’ final four games last season with an ankle injury, dooming their playoff hopes, and his knee sprain this season sidelined him for their final six games.
Harbaugh said he doesn’t expect Jackson’s injuries to become part of “any kind of a trend,” as much a vote of confidence in Jackson’s availability as an endorsement of his value to any potential suitors.
“Lamar, I don’t believe, is a guy who is going to have those issues going forward,” he said. “Both those plays the last two years are kind of freaky plays that happened — they can happen. So Lamar is a very durable player. I know that people might take issue with that — I get it — but I don’t believe that there’s going to be a problem going forward, because I know how hard he’s going to work.
“Lamar Jackson works hard. Whether it’s in the weight room, on the field, running, in the classroom, Lamar is all football. He works really hard at it, and that’s really what you do; you work hard, you get yourself in great shape, you go play the game the way you play it. And that’s what he’ll do next year.”
As the Ravens work toward a contract extension with Jackson, they’ll also continue to consider his input in their team-building process. In 2019, Jackson told the Ravens’ front office that he’d like to have Marquise “Hollywood” Brown or Jerry Jeudy, a 2020 prospect, as his No. 1 wide receiver. DeCosta drafted Brown with the Ravens’ top pick in 2019.
Two years later, after injuries along the offensive line seemed to shake Jackson’s confidence in the pocket, he told team officials to focus on fortifying the team’s front. The Ravens signed right tackle Morgan Moses in free agency and drafted center Tyler Linderbaum, and they finished the 2022 season with one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.
Now, with the departure of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who announced Thursday that he was stepping down after four seasons to seek opportunities elsewhere, Harbaugh said Jackson would be involved in the search for a replacement. Jackson is the “kind of guy we want to build this team around,” Harbaugh said.
“I’ve loved Lamar, Eric loves Lamar, and it’s not going to change in the future,” he said. “I don’t know anything about the details about the whole [contract] thing, but I know one thing: I’m like all the fans out there and everybody else; 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, [owner] Steve [Bisciotti] wants him here, and Lamar wants to be here. So it’s going to work out.”
It’s just unclear how, exactly, it will work out.