A year ago, an NFL star wanted out. He was entering the final year of his rookie deal and unhappy with contract negotiations. He’d been used unlike any player in the league and wanted to be rewarded for it. He asked to be traded.
Three months later, Deebo Samuel had a new deal, not a new home. In late July, six weeks before San Francisco’s season opener, the 49ers’ All-Pro wide receiver-slash-”wide back” agreed to a three-year contract extension worth up to $73.5 million, with $58.1 million in guarantees, the second-most ever for a wide receiver.
“Besides the money, I just love the game,” Samuel said after signing the deal. “I love being out here. I love this team, coaching staff and what we have here as an organization.”
As Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s trade request throws the franchise’s offseason into further turmoil, Samuel’s saga is a reminder that reconciliation is possible. It just might take a lot of posturing, a lot of waiting and a lot more negotiating to get there.
The lead-ups to their trade demands were similar enough. Samuel’s unique skill set — 4.48-second speed in the 40-yard dash, tackle-breaking power in the open field — had made him a weapon in Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense. In 2021, including his playoff production, he became the first player in NFL history to reach 1,500 receiving yards and 500 rushing yards in one season. But Samuel also had missed more than half of the previous season because of a series of lower-body injuries, and his workload as a runner added more risk to a potential investment.
Jackson, meanwhile, in 2019 became the NFL’s second-youngest player to earn league Most Valuable Player honors and made the Pro Bowl a second time two seasons later. His running ability turned the Ravens’ rushing offense into the NFL’s best. Jackson also missed the team’s final five games in 2021 with an ankle injury and its final six games last season, including a playoff loss, with a knee injury.
In a series of tweets announcing his trade request Monday, Jackson said the Ravens’ front office “has not been interested in meeting my value” over their two-plus years of negotiations. Earlier this month, general manager Eric DeCosta designated Jackson with the nonexclusive franchise tag, freeing him to engage other teams in contract negotiations. If he signs an offer sheet, the Ravens could match it or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.
Two weeks into his quasi-free agency, Jackson hasn’t found any takers. The team with the most reliable interest is still the Ravens, who reportedly offered him a contract last summer with the second-most guaranteed money ever.
“Lamar’s under contract, and of course that’s the guy I want to see be our quarterback,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “That’s my guy. We made a decision to go with Lamar Jackson five years ago, right? Why? Because we love him. We love him. We love the way he plays. We love his mindset, his charisma, his style, the way he is in the locker room. Everything about him, we love him. I love him personally. I love being the coach of the team that he’s playing quarterback for.”
The 49ers felt much the same about Samuel, even as his 2022 offseason perhaps tested their patience. In early April, after watching star receivers Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs sign lucrative contract extensions, Samuel scrubbed his Instagram account of 49ers references.
A few weeks later, news broke that Samuel had requested a trade. As with Jackson, there was a lag in the reporting; Jackson said he requested a trade March 2, well before the Ravens had even tagged him. Samuel’s request, meanwhile, wasn’t publicized until more than a week after it was reportedly submitted.
The 49ers reportedly looked into trade offers for Samuel during the NFL draft but decided they weren’t enticing enough. Over time, the tension softened. Samuel attended mandatory minicamp and reported on time for training camp. Soon after, a deal was hammered out.
“When Deebo stays healthy and he’s able to practice and able to go through things, Deebo is capable of doing anything,” Shanahan said. “That’s why he has helped us so much to win — whether it’s in the pass game or the run game, whether it’s blocking, whether it’s throwing. … When you have guys who have skill sets, who can do a number of things, you want to always keep building off of that.”
The entanglements of Jackson’s negotiations, of course, are far more consequential. He’s believed to be seeking a contract similar in structure to the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal that Deshaun Watson signed with the Cleveland Browns last offseason. Until he’s under contract, Jackson’s also not obligated to attend any offseason activities with the Ravens. Coordinator Todd Monken’s new offense could be without its most important piece until September, if not later.
And, maybe most important, Jackson doesn’t have an agent. When Samuel showed up for camp, he and Shanahan agreed to limit his activity to conditioning work while 49ers general manager John Lynch worked with Samuel’s agent on the new deal. When Jackson showed up for camp last offseason, there was no buffer; he had to find time for practices and negotiations with DeCosta before Week 1. A breakthrough never emerged, and Jackson played on the final year of his rookie deal.
On Monday, with no long-term contract secured, little leverage in his Ravens negotiations and a seemingly quiet market for a 26-year-old star quarterback, Jackson announced that he’d requested a trade. Eleven months earlier, Samuel had done the same. He got what he wanted, too — from the team that wanted him all along.
“Do I regret requesting a trade?” Samuel said after signing the deal last August. “At the end of the day, this is a business. We came to a decision, and I’m here. So I’m happy to be here, and it is what it is.”