The executive director of the NFL’s players’ union on Friday said the league’s franchise owners could be colluding against Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and alleged they were “criminally gaming the game itself” to avoid paying fully guaranteed contracts.

In a memo shared Friday on the NFL Players Association’s website, executive director DeMaurice Smith questioned why the Ravens and other teams have been unwilling to offer Jackson a deal with guarantees similar to those in other sports. It’s unclear whether Jackson, who’s free to negotiate contracts with other teams after two-plus years of unsuccessful talks in Baltimore, has received any offer sheets since free agency opened Wednesday.

Jackson is representing himself in negotiations and has enlisted the help of the NFLPA. The 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player is believed to be seeking a deal similar to Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. After suspending negotiations with general manager Eric DeCosta before last year’s season opener, Jackson declined to comment in September on the input he’d received from the NFLPA.

Smith, who has served as executive director since 2009, said Friday that he’s “never witnessed teams being so quick to publicly announce their lack of interest in an MVP quarterback, who is in his prime and who is also going to get an injury guarantee, regardless of his contract.” After the Ravens designated Jackson with the nonexclusive franchise tag March 7, leaving themselves vulnerable to being outbid this offseason, a handful of potential suitors indicated through media reports that they would not be pursuing the star quarterback.

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At the NFL owners meetings last year, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti called the contract that Watson signed last year “groundbreaking” and acknowledged that it would “make negotiations harder with others.”

“The fully guaranteed structure for franchised players in the NFL CBA [collective bargaining agreement] was created precisely because we as a union know that owners have colluded in the past — and might do it again, as they are potentially doing right now — when it comes to highly sought-after players,” Smith wrote. “So for those people out there who chant the power of a mythical NFL ‘free market’ — the market that would supposedly work to secure the highest and best contracts without a draft because all the owners want to win just the same — wake up and look at a market that is supposed to be but isn’t, and teams that should be doing everything to win but do not.”

An NFL spokesperson did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Smith’s remarks.

According to ESPN, Jackson last year turned down an offer for a five-year extension from the Ravens that included $133 million guaranteed at signing, $175 million guaranteed for injury and $200 million in total guarantees if he were on the roster on the fifth day of the 2026 league year. (Jackson later shared a GIF on Twitter that appeared to cast doubt on the report.)

Only four players in NFL history, all quarterbacks, have received at least $100 million fully guaranteed in their contract: Watson, the Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson ($119 million), the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray ($103.3 million) and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers ($101.4 million). Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins received a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal in 2018 after playing on the franchise tag for two straight seasons.

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Among the major North American sports leagues, the NFL is the only one in which multiyear contracts for veteran players typically are not guaranteed. Smith wrote that NFL owners “hate” them because “they are better for the players than they are for the owners.”

“A fully guaranteed contact in Jackson’s instance means that all quarterbacks on expiring rookie contracts will (and should anyway) demand them in the next cycle,” Smith said. “Make no mistake, what is occurring right now is their [the owners’] effort to block the same cycle that ushered in fully guaranteed contracts in other sports, and it is exactly what we are seeing in the NFL in the aftermath of both the Cousins and Watson contracts.”

DeCosta has declined to comment on what Jackson is seeking in negotiations, but his next deal could help set the market for quarterbacks. At the NFL scouting combine last month, Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin, who’s negotiating a new deal with star Joe Burrow, acknowledged that he’s “always sensitive” to league trends. The Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts are also eligible for contract extensions this offseason.

“The NFL wants to send a message to all of the above-named stars that they will not get a fully guaranteed contact, simply because other first-ballot Hall of Famers didn’t get them and — if they can help it — because Jackson didn’t get one, either,” Smith wrote. “The message for the non-quarterback free agent market is equally harsh: You don’t stand a chance of getting this type of contract.”

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. 

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