The Ravens have placed their nonexclusive franchise tag on Lamar Jackson, leaving themselves vulnerable to being outbid for their star quarterback this offseason.
In designating Jackson with the $32.4 million nonexclusive tag on Tuesday, general manager Eric DeCosta signaled his willingness to let Jackson test his value on the open market after over two years of unsuccessful negotiations. The Ravens have the right to match any offer sheet that Jackson signs with another team after the free-agent signing period begins March 15.
If the offer is not matched within five days, the Ravens would receive that team’s next two first-round picks as compensation, a relatively small return for a franchise quarterback. Teams have until July 17 to agree with Jackson on a long-term deal.
“Having not yet reached a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, we will use the franchise tag,” DeCosta said in a statement. “There have been many instances across the league and in Baltimore when a player has been designated with the franchise tag and signed a long-term deal that same year. We will continue to negotiate in good faith with Lamar, and we are hopeful that we can strike a long-term deal that is fair to both Lamar and the Ravens. Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come.”
Jackson, however, could wait as late as the Tuesday following the 10th week of the regular season to sign the franchise tender or another team’s offer sheet.
Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, is the NFL’s highest-profile player to be tagged since the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, in 2012. Four other quarterbacks over that span were also tagged: Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Peyton Manning and Michael Vick. Only Cousins received the nonexclusive tag — and a year after that, in 2017, Washington designated him with the exclusive tag, which prevents players from negotiating with other teams.
The exclusive tender for quarterbacks this year is worth a projected $45 million, about 20% of the NFL’s salary cap in 2023. The Ravens entered Tuesday with a projected $23.1 million in salary cap space, just five picks in April’s draft and roster holes at wide receiver and cornerback. DeCosta said in January that the team would have to be “selective” in free agency.
It’s unclear what kind of market awaits Jackson, whose cap hit last year, his fifth season in Baltimore, was $23 million. Before suspending contract talks with the Ravens in September, he reportedly turned down a five-year extension offer worth over $250 million, including $133 million guaranteed at signing.
Jackson could be seeking a deal more in line with the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract that the Cleveland Browns’ Deshaun Watson signed last March. The two star quarterbacks who’ve signed extensions since Watson, the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, agreed to deals with higher average annual values but far less money guaranteed at signing.
“I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said of Watson at last year’s NFL owners meetings. “To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to play that game, you know?”
Injuries have limited Jackson, one of the NFL’s most electrifying talents, to a combined three games in December and none in January over the past two seasons. He suffered a season-ending bone bruise in his ankle in December 2021, and a season-ending knee sprain one year later.
Negotiations with DeCosta resumed after this past season, and coach John Harbaugh reiterated at the NFL scouting combine on Wednesday that the team is “200%” committed to Jackson.
A quarterback-hungry league will likely test that commitment. The Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons, among others, all need upgrades at the position. With the 2023 draft class lacking a sure-thing quarterback prospect, and limited options available in free agency, Jackson’s availability could generate a bidding war.
“You can’t win in this league without a strong quarterback,” DeCosta said Wednesday at the combine in Indianapolis. “That’s been proven. So we want Lamar here. We think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He’s certainly one of our best players and we want him back. We understand that living in a world without a quarterback is a bad world to live in.”