UPDATE: Lamar Jackson has requested a trade, saying the team “has not been interested in meeting my value.”
PHOENIX — When Ravens coach John Harbaugh met with reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Florida, last March, Lamar Jackson was not yet the league’s most interesting man. There was no talk of franchise tags or collusion. Certainly no one knew who Ken Francis was.
The line of questioning reflected as much. At the start of Harbaugh’s 33-minute media availability, he was asked about center Bradley Bozeman’s free-agent exit (”Going forward, we’ll find our next answer”). He was asked about the progress of rehabilitating running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards (”To what degree they’ll be ready, we’ll have to see”). He was asked about the signing of safety Marcus Williams (”It’s kind of a big deal for us”).
Not until the 17th minute was Harbaugh asked about his quarterback. Harbaugh said Jackson and the Ravens were eager to get back to work after an injury-marred 2021. He said he didn’t have any news on Jackson’s contract negotiations. He said he believed Jackson was focused on his offseason training.
“With Lamar, you never know,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not really just in the forefront of his mind whenever I talk to him. I’d love to see something get done. ... I’m confident it’s going to happen. Of course, like you guys well know, until it happens, it hasn’t happened.”
A year later, it still hasn’t happened. Two-plus years into negotiations, the Ravens and Jackson don’t have a deal. Now every day that passes without resolution seems to incubate another batch of viral drama.
As coaches and executives from across the NFL converge in Phoenix for this week’s owners meetings, perhaps no team will dominate the discourse more than the Ravens. A lot has happened in the four weeks since general manager Eric DeCosta and Harbaugh spoke at the NFL scouting combine. A lot more can still happen in the four weeks ahead of the NFL draft. Here’s what to look out for.
What’s the latest with Lamar?
Monday’s media availability will mark the Ravens’ first since they designated Jackson with the nonexclusive franchise tag, allowing their biggest star to find his own market. So far, at least publicly, he hasn’t found a compelling one. A handful of quarterback-needy teams quickly excused themselves from the sweepstakes after the Ravens tagged Jackson with the $32.4 million tender, which gives them the right to match any offer sheet Jackson signs or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
Over its first 12 days, Jackson’s quasi-free agency has generated more NFL and NFL Players Association memos (two) than it has legitimate suitors (one: the Ravens). On March 17, DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL’s players’ union, wrote that the league’s franchise owners could be colluding against Jackson and alleged they were “criminally gaming the game itself” to avoid paying fully guaranteed contracts. Jackson is believed to be seeking a contract similar in structure to the five-year, $230 million deal that the Cleveland Browns signed Deshaun Watson to last year.
On Thursday, the NFL instructed all 32 teams to not negotiate with a person identified as Ken Francis, who had reportedly reached out on Jackson’s behalf. Jackson, who does not have a certified agent representing him in contract talks, denied that Francis had ever negotiated for him. Jackson later shared an advertisement for portable fitness equipment that he and his “business partner Ken” — believed to be Francis — would soon be making available for purchase.
That’s a lot for any coach to wrap his arms around. And still there’s more for Harbaugh to address: How is Jackson’s health? Is there any progress in his relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Monken and new quarterbacks coach Tee Martin? Does he expect Jackson to participate in any offseason workouts? Does he know what Jackson said in his “exclusive” interview with his own media team?
Harbaugh has long been one of Jackson’s biggest advocates, and any softening in the team’s long-term commitment to him would be a notable development.
What’s the plan at wide receiver?
Ravens wide receivers last season finished with the fewest receiving yards in the NFL for the third time in the past four years. At the team’s season-ending news conference, Harbaugh and DeCosta took questions about the position’s lack of production for probably the 10th time in the past 10 years. DeCosta joked that he knew “what the fans would like” at wideout. Harbaugh said there would be a “new room, basically.”
But midway through the second wave of free agency, there hasn’t been much in the way of wish fulfillment. Rashod Bateman figures to be back as the team’s top wide receiver, though his return from a season-ending Lisfranc (foot) injury looms over his offseason. Devin Duvernay, amid uncertainty about his fit in the Ravens’ salary cap picture, still has a roster spot and still projects as a second starter.
The Ravens’ lone addition in free agency this offseason has been Nelson Agholor, a former first-round pick who had a combined 835 yards over two disappointing seasons with the New England Patriots. Last year, he finished with 31 catches for 362 yards — 17 catches and 96 yards fewer than Demarcus Robinson, now a free agent, had in Baltimore.
With little production from James Proche II and Tylan Wallace, depth remains an issue for DeCosta. So does the possibility of dissent. DeCosta said at the combine that the Ravens are “very excited” about Bateman’s potential. But he also seemed to irk the 2021 first-round pick. In response to a question about the challenges of evaluating wide receivers, DeCosta said: “If I had an answer, that means I would probably have some better receivers.”
Bateman wrote in a since-deleted tweet: “How bout you play to your player’s strength and & stop pointing the finger at us and #8 ...blame the one you let do this.... we take heat 24/7 . & keep us healthy ... care about US & see what happen..ain’t no promises tho ... tired of y’all lyin and capn on players for no reason.” He later apologized.
If the Ravens can’t figure out a trade for an impact wide receiver this offseason, they could try to draft one — again. Boston College’s Zay Flowers, USC’s Jordan Addison and TCU’s Quentin Johnson have all been linked to the team’s first-round pick.
Are the Ravens making the grade?
Just as DeCosta and Harbaugh finished speaking at the scouting combine, the NFLPA published its findings from a survey of players last year. The Ravens graded out at an average or above-average level in every category but one: strength staff, where they received an NFL-worst F-minus.
According to a summary of the NFLPA’s findings, players did not feel like the team’s strength staff helped them succeed. Only 38% of respondents said they received an individualized plan for their strength training.
The survey’s release came in the wake of the Ravens’ decision to part ways with controversial strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders. Scott Elliott, previously the team’s assistant strength and conditioning coach, was promoted to strength and conditioning coordinator in February. Anthony Watson, Ron Shrift and Kaelyn Buskey were also retained as strength and conditioning coaches.
The Ravens haven’t commented on the findings, which an NFLPA spokesman said were based on an unknown number of surveys compiled “during the latter part of this past season.” Only one other team, the Atlanta Falcons, received a strength staff grade worse than a B.
The Ravens also received mediocre grades for their training room (C), treatment of families (C-plus) and weight room (C-plus).