At 4 p.m. Wednesday, Lamar Jackson’s phone will start to ring. Or maybe it won’t. The Ravens star, designated with the nonexclusive franchise tag last week, will be free to negotiate a long-term deal when the NFL’s new league year begins. There will be interest. In a quarterback-needy league, there always is. All it takes to set the market is one team.

But what it will take for a team to even enter that market is considerable: an owner willing to spend on a record deal. A line of communication with Jackson and his advisers. A willingness to part with first-round picks. Patience for waiting out the offer sheet window. A plan for presenting Jackson a deal the Ravens can’t match. A backup plan, just in case they do.

“This is a historic event,” said NFL Network analyst Marc Ross, a former New York Giants executive. By offering Jackson a $32.4 million nonexclusive tender, the Ravens have essentially made the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player a restricted free agent. “There’s really no one of his caliber at this stage in his career that this has happened to.”

With Jackson set to gauge his value outside Baltimore for the first time in his career, The Baltimore Banner spoke with Ross and The 33rd Team analyst Joe Banner, another former NFL executive, about the unique challenges of contract negotiations with a star quarterback during a hectic window in the NFL’s offseason.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Ownership

When Ross was working for the Giants, team owner John Mara was “heavily involved” in personnel decisions, he said. Not every owner needs to be looped in on every roster move, but a deal of Jackson’s pay scale typically requires signoff from a team’s top executive.

The first question every owner must answer before entering into a franchise-altering deal: How much money can they put up? Under league 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.

In this case, it could be a record amount. If Jackson is seeking a deal with guaranteed money comparable to what Deshaun Watson received from the Browns last offseason, as is believed around the league, the interested team’s owner would have to be prepared to place a huge sum in escrow within a short window. For Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam last year, it was reportedly $169 million.

Banner said Jackson’s negotiations would invert the traditional process for general managers, where “the owner usually comes in kind of at the end to approve a plan. … Now, you prep the owner first and make sure he’s comfortable with certain philosophical decisions. Because if he’s not, you’re wasting your time to even go down the path of even making a phone call about it.”

Communication

Philadelphia Eagles President/Chief Operating OfficerJoe Banner walks off the field after the game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, December 31, 2006 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles won, 24-17. (Brian Killian/Getty Images)

About that phone call — how would negotiations start in the first place? Jackson doesn’t have a certified agent, preferring to lean on his mother and help from the NFL Players Association, along with other advisers. Jackson himself can be hard to reach, too; when Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta made one last push to reach a deal before the start of free agency, he met with Jackson in person in South Florida.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If distance is a disadvantage for front offices conducting business from their team headquarters, progress on contract talks could be slow going.

“They need to know: Who do we call? Do we just call you?” Banner said. “Because he does have people helping and advising him. And if you’re going to be a restricted free agent, you certainly want to make it easy for anybody who could be interested to get a hold of whoever can answer the questions. Got to make sure everybody out there knows that.”

Even once a dialogue is established, there could be friction. At the NFL scouting combine earlier this month, DeCosta acknowledged the difficulties of negotiating a deal without having an agent as a buffer: “You have different arguments that you can use that maybe you wouldn’t say to a player.”

A new negotiator risks pushing those same sore spots. Without a blank check to offer Jackson, disagreements would follow. Tense talks and hurt feelings could be next.

“As soon as this thing started, I said, ‘This is going to be hard, and this is unprecedented,’” Ross said. “Because usually in negotiations, you’ve got your cap guy and your GM involved, and they’ve got your agent, and you go back and forth. You can yell at each other. You can air your grievances and then [say], ‘OK, on to the next day.’ And you know it’s business.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“But when you’ve just got the player involved, you can’t have that same kind of dialogue. You can’t have that same sort of contentiousness, because you’re always not wanting to upset him or hurt his feelings. And that’s not what you want to do in the negotiations anyway. … Then just the intricacies of everything that’s going on — you have experts that do things for a reason. Those agents, they’re there for a reason. And those contract negotiations are tricky, super tricky, super complicated.”

Compensation

A deal for Jackson wouldn’t come cheap. ESPN reported this week that Jackson last year rejected an offer for a five-year extension worth $133 million fully guaranteed, and another $42 million guaranteed for injury, meaning that he’d still be owed $175 million overall if he were hurt. The overall framework of the reported deal, which had additional guarantees that pushed its total value to $200 million, would’ve made it one of the richest in NFL history.

If that marks a starting point for suitors, interest in Jackson could be limited. Watson’s fully guaranteed contract remains an outlier in NFL contracts. The Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, who signed in the months after Watson’s deal, agreed to deals with higher average annual values but far less money guaranteed at signing.

Because of Jackson’s nonexclusive franchise tag, a team that signs him would also have to forfeit its next two first-round picks. That would have its own theoretical cost, too: According to a 2022 analysis by Pro Football Focus, a first-round pick is worth about $25 million to $30 million in surplus value over a four-year span because of the relatively team-friendly terms of rookie contracts.

But in a quarterback market where Daniel Jones can command a four-year, $160 million extension from the New York Giants, a historic contract for Jackson — whether it’s in Baltimore or elsewhere — seems inevitable. That’s the price of doing business with franchise quarterbacks, Ross said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“When you just look at the other quarterbacks that have been signed in this cycle, the last cycle, the last four or five cycles, they completely fall apart when you compare Lamar’s situation to them,” he said. “Compensation has been given up, draft value, draft picks, money, whatever, background — they fall apart.”

Public relations

Few scenarios would create a bigger headache for a front office than one in which Jackson signs an offer sheet, only for the Ravens to match it.

One surefire way to make it worse? Have a young starting quarterback who’s just found out that the team doesn’t believe in him anymore. Or at least not as much as his coach and general manager said they did.

“What message do you send him by pursuing Lamar?” Banner said.

Timing

The Ravens have had two-plus years to get an extension done with Jackson. It hasn’t happened. That doesn’t mean Jackson won’t get an offer he covets. Nor does it mean he’d have to wait very long for one, either.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Assuming that there’s legitimate, significant interest, it actually takes a very short time to negotiate the terms and put together an offer sheet,” Banner said. “He needs somebody to be sitting out there that really thinks getting him would just be the greatest thing they could possibly do, that the next three to five years completely changes the trajectory of the team and is willing to take the necessary financial steps to secure him.”

The trouble is the risk inherent in an offer sheet. Banner and Ross said that any team negotiating a megadeal with Jackson would have to be nearly certain that its final offer sheet would be one the Ravens couldn’t match. Otherwise, the repercussions could be severe.

Under league rules, any signed offer sheet counts against the team’s cap as if it were finalized. So if a suitor were to design a front-loaded contract, knowing that the Ravens would labor to find enough financial flexibility to match a 2023 cap hit of $50 million, $60 million or more, a sizable chunk of their budget would vanish with it.

If the Ravens couldn’t match the contract within the allotted five days, Jackson would have a new home and a new deal. But if the Ravens did match the offer sheet, Jackson would be under contract, beholden to the terms he negotiated with another team.

And that hard-luck suitor? They would be left rueing their wasted time. The money freed up on their salary cap would have little power to help build a winning team in a free-agent market that, by then, would likely be plucked clean of its top available talents. As of Monday night, less than 12 hours into the NFL’s legal tampering period, just 10 of NFL.com’s top 20 free agents had not yet agreed to deals.

“Not getting him, then you’re messed up with your cap or someone else you’re trying to pursue,” Ross said. “That’s the most reasonable one of the excuses that is there. That’s the most realistic.”

“This has huge implications with everything you’re going to do this offseason,” Banner said. “You need to know whether or not it’s going to happen.”

jonas.shaffer@thebaltimorebanner.com

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

More From The Banner