There is little modern precedent for the market that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson will enter when the NFL’s legal tampering window opens Monday. Until Tuesday, only three quarterbacks over the past two decades had ever been designated with the nonexclusive franchise tag, which allows players to negotiate with other teams. None had Jackson’s resume.
In 2005, the Chargers’ Drew Brees played on the tag before leaving San Diego the following offseason for a six-year deal with the New Orleans Saints. In 2009, the New England Patriots traded Matt Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs less than three weeks after tagging him. In 2016, Kirk Cousins signed Washington’s nonexclusive tender, then signed the team’s exclusive tender one year later, before leaving in 2018 for a fully guaranteed three-year deal from the Minnesota Vikings.
But as the Ravens surveyed the NFL’s quarterback landscape ahead of the start of free agency, it was another deal, one finalized without the constraints of a franchise tag, that might have proved especially instructive.
In October 2017, the San Francisco 49ers traded a second-round pick to the New England Patriots to acquire backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, then in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. He was an almost immediate success under coach Kyle Shanahan, going 5-0 as a starter and posting an 82.7 QBR.
49ers officials indicated that they were willing to keep Garoppolo, a pending free agent, by using the tag. But they had an even more valuable resource: tons of salary cap space. In February 2018, a month before the tag deadline, San Francisco signed Garoppolo to a five-year deal worth $137.5 million, including an NFL-record $86.4 million over the first three years.
The contract’s front-loaded structure reflected the 49ers’ financial flexibility. Garoppolo’s cap hit in 2018, the first year of the extension, was $37 million, 15.9% of San Francisco’s total cap and $10.5 million more than the league’s second-highest figure. Paraag Marathe, San Francisco’s chief contract negotiator, later told Sports Illustrated that the hit would’ve been even higher if not for a provision in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that requires teams to make a player’s Year 2 cap figure at least 50 percent of their Year 1 figure.
“We had the flexibility to do it where we set it up where it’s a little front-loaded,” Marathe told local reporters after signing Garoppolo. “That was helpful for us. It didn’t compromise our cap position this year. We’re still in a really good spot.”
If the Ravens lose Jackson this offseason, it won’t be because of “poison pill” clauses in contract offers. (Those have been banned by the CBA for over a decade.) Nor will it be because the Ravens are actively seeking a franchise reset; coach John Harbaugh has reiterated that the team is “200%” committed to Jackson, and general manager Eric DeCosta said in January that he and Harbaugh have little interest in a “total rebuild.”
Instead, the most likely culprit for an offseason divorce could be an offer sheet built like Garoppolo’s deal. If a team that covets Jackson can stomach losing two first-round picks and offering a potentially historic sum of guaranteed money, its best course of action might be to attack the Ravens where they’re weakest: in 2023 cap space.
After placing the $32.4 million nonexclusive tag on Jackson — the exclusive tag would’ve cost a projected $45 million — the Ravens are about $9 million over the cap. They’ll need to get under the cap by 4 p.m. Wednesday. After that, DeCosta will need to clear even more space for unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, draft picks, practice squad moves and a rainy-day fund. It won’t be an easy balancing act.
Jackson, though, remains the team’s most important and most volatile piece. By using the nonexclusive tag Tuesday, the Ravens made clear their willingness to let the market be his mediator. DeCosta’s bet is that Jackson won’t find an offer better than the Ravens’.
It’s unclear what the terms of such a deal might look like. Jackson hasn’t spoken to reporters since before his season-ending knee injury in December, and DeCosta has declined to comment on what Jackson is seeking. But if new negotiations under the tag produce an offer sheet that Jackson is willing to sign, the contract’s structure could dictate the Ravens’ chances of matching it and keeping Jackson.
According to salary cap website Over The Cap, 10 teams could have at least $60 million in cap space this offseason with simple restructures, which convert a player’s salary into prorated bonuses over the length of his contract. Twenty-one teams could have at least $80 million in cap space with maximum restructures, which involve contract extensions and added void years.
The Ravens do not qualify for either group. Simple restructures would push their cap space to just $19.2 million, and maximum restructures to just $71.6 million. That could leave them vulnerable. If Jackson signs an offer sheet with a cap hit of, say, $70 million in 2023, it would take considerable cap manipulation for the Ravens to match the offer without strip-mining the rest of their roster.
The fewer teams that are interested in Jackson, the more likely the Ravens are to avoid those potentially troublesome suitors. And so far, several teams that would be well positioned to make front-loaded contract offers are, according to early reporting, supposedly uninterested. The Atlanta Falcons ($67.3 million in current cap space), Las Vegas Raiders ($39.7 million) and Washington Commanders ($16.6 million), all quarterback-needy franchises, will reportedly not pursue Jackson this offseason.
His market could change quickly, though. Jackson is one compelling offer away from forcing the Ravens to reevaluate just how much he’s worth to them. At the NFL scouting combine last week, DeCosta said that “living in a world without a quarterback is a bad world to live in.”
The Ravens’ hope all along has been to avoid that kind of existence. But with the nonexclusive tag placed on Jackson, the future of their partnership could hinge on how other teams want to live, too.