Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is about a week away from starting to find out what he’s worth.
With the Ravens placing the nonexclusive franchise tag Tuesday on Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player will be able to negotiate with other NFL teams when free agency opens at the start of the new league year on March 15.
The Ravens can continue contract talks with Jackson, which have dragged on for over two years. They can also match any offer sheet that Jackson signs. If not, they’d receive two first-round picks from Jackson’s new team as compensation.
Every team needs a franchise quarterback. But not every team has the appetite for what Jackson is reportedly seeking: a fully guaranteed contract that would make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid players.
Here’s a look at who could be after Jackson this offseason — and why their pursuit might not amount to much.
Projected starting QB: Desmond Ridder
Why they’d want Jackson: The Falcons have $67.3 million in cap space, according to Spotrac, second most in the NFL, and they could clear tens of millions more with contract restructures and extensions. With that flexibility, Atlanta could offer Jackson a front-loaded contract that the Ravens couldn’t match. Falcons officials have also been reluctant this offseason to tab Ridder, a 2022 third-round pick who started four games last year, as their starting quarterback. And with the eighth overall pick in the draft, Atlanta could be out of range to get a quarterback prospect it really wants.
Why they wouldn’t: The Falcons have never won the Super Bowl. Team owner Arthur Blank, at age 80, might be desperate to field another Super Bowl contender. But he wasn’t desperate enough last year to offer quarterback Deshaun Watson a fully guaranteed contract. Will the Falcons’ near-miss on a franchise quarterback make Blank more or less likely to offer Jackson a historic deal?
Projected starting QB: Sam Darnold (pending free agent)
Why they’d want Jackson: David Tepper is one of the NFL’s richest owners, but the Panthers have never had a viable franchise quarterback since he acquired the team in 2018. And with the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, one spot behind Atlanta, Carolina general manager Scott Fitterer is unlikely to land his preferred quarterback prospect. Darnold showed flashes of promise as a stopgap quarterback last season, but the team needs a big splash at the position.
Why they wouldn’t: The Panthers don’t have much cap space this offseason, and it’s unclear how well Jackson would fit in new coach Frank Reich’s West Coast passing schemes. Carolina was also in the mix for Watson last spring but was unwilling to offer the contract guarantees that Watson got from the Cleveland Browns, reportedly because of Watson’s off-field concerns. Jackson’s injury history could be a similar deterrent for Panthers officials.
Projected starting QB: Sam Howell
Why they’d want Jackson: The Commanders have a strong defense, talented wide receivers and decent salary cap space. Now they just need a quarterback — someone who can do more for the offense than Carson Wentz, Taylor Heinicke and Howell did last season. If these are Daniel Snyder’s final days as an NFL owner, why not go out with one last shock to the system? A fully guaranteed megadeal, at the expense of a regional rival, would raise hell.
Why they wouldn’t: If Snyder wants to write Jackson a blank check, he’d have to have the funds to cover it. Under NFL rules, all fully guaranteed money due in a player’s contract must be placed in an escrow fund at the time the deal is finalized. And there are reportedly concerns about Snyder’s cash flow.
The wild cards
New York Jets
Projected starting QB: Mike White
Why they’d want Jackson: With a franchise quarterback, the Jets would have a roster primed for the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2010. There’s young, cheap talent on offense (running back Breece Hall, wide receiver Garrett Wilson) and defense (defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner). Now the Jets need a playmaker to match the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen in the AFC East.
Why they wouldn’t: The Jets are reportedly in talks with the Green Bay Packers about a potential trade for four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers would be a more cap-friendly option at quarterback, counting just $15.8 million against the cap in 2023 and $32.5 million in 2024. Jets owner Woody Johnson told reporters in January that he “absolutely” is willing to spend big at the position this offseason, but how big? Only three years ago, general manager Joe Douglas was reportedly telling agents of free-agent players that the team was restricted by its cash flow situation.
Las Vegas Raiders
Projected starting QB: Jarrett Stidham
Why they’d want Jackson: The Raiders’ quarterback reset is underway after the release of Derek Carr. Las Vegas has $39.7 million in cap space, fifth most in the NFL, and a potentially tantalizing group of skill position stars: running back Josh Jacobs, wide receiver Davante Adams and tight end Darren Waller. (Jacobs received the franchise tag Monday, while Waller has been the subject of trade talks.) Jackson would bring another brand name to a franchise less than four years removed from its move to Las Vegas.
Why they wouldn’t: The Raiders have been linked to pending free agent Jimmy Garoppolo, whose connections with coach Josh McDaniels date back to their time together in New England. Garoppolo would be by far the cheaper option, in both the short and long term.
Projected starting QB: Ryan Tannehill
Why they’d want Jackson: The Titans can move on from Tannehill without much of a headache. Tennessee could create $17.8 million in cap space by releasing or trading him before June 1. It could also create $27 million in savings by releasing or trading him after June 1. General manager Ran Carthon said last week that Tannehill is “a Titan, and he will be a Titan,” but declined to say whether he expects him to be the team’s quarterback in 2023. Backup Malik Willis struggled as a rookie, leaving the team’s future at the position unclear. The Titans have $23.6 million in cap space, ninth most in the NFL, and the No. 11 overall pick in the draft.
Why they wouldn’t: When Tennessee traded star wide receiver A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles last year, guaranteed money was reportedly a point of contention in contract negotiations. How much would Titans officials be willing to offer Jackson a year later? There’s also the matter of personnel. Running back Derrick Henry is the Titans’ lone established playmaker. Jackson would take over an offense with a rebuilding offensive line and young, unproven talent at receiver.
The long shots
Projected starting QB: Tua Tagovailoa
Why they’d want Jackson: Tagovailoa’s future in Miami is uncertain. His concussion history could prove insurmountable, and the team hasn’t yet picked up his fifth-year option for 2024. Jackson, a South Florida native, would add even more speed to an offense already featuring two track star receivers in All-Pro Tyreek Hill and rising star Jaylen Waddle. The Dolphins haven’t been afraid to go after big-name quarterbacks, either. Team owner Steve Ross was caught tampering with then-New England Patriots star Tom Brady in 2019.
Why they wouldn’t: If the Dolphins want to sign Jackson — or if Jackson wants to sign with the Dolphins — both will have to wait until after the draft. To sign Jackson to an offer sheet, a team would need to have a first-round pick in each of the next two drafts. The Dolphins lost their 2023 first-round pick after their tampering incident, meaning the earliest pair of first-rounders they could offer would be from 2024 and 2025. Depending on how Jackson’s market develops before the draft, Miami could come too late to the negotiations to have a chance.
Projected starting QB: Justin Fields
Why they’d want Jackson: No team has more salary cap space than the Bears — not only this year ($96.9 million), but next year as well ($281 million with a projected $235 million salary cap). If Chicago officials are pessimistic about Fields’ long-term potential and have no appetite for any of the quarterback prospects at the top of the draft, why not swing for the fences and get a former MVP?
Why they wouldn’t: Bears general manager Ryan Poles last week reaffirmed the team’s commitment to Fields, who’s on a team-friendly rookie contract and under team control for up to three more years. Chicago, which has the No. 1 overall pick, could also grab its top quarterback prospect in the draft or make a move to potentially take a passer in next year’s talented class.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Projected starting QB: Kyle Trask
Why they’d want Jackson: With Tom Brady’s retirement, Trask is the team’s only quarterback under contract through next season. And with the No. 19 overall pick in the draft, the Buccaneers could also be squeezed out of the rookie quarterback picture. Tampa Bay has two standout wide receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and a solid offensive line. A quarterback like Jackson could keep the Buccaneers’ playoff hopes afloat.
Why they wouldn’t: It’s hard to imagine how a team with the least salary cap space in the NFL — the Buccaneers are currently $57.2 million over the cap — could make the math work on one of the largest contracts in league history.