In Lamar Jackson’s contract standoff with Ravens, who has the leverage? Maybe nobody.

Published 4/13/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 4/13/2023 3:06 p.m. EDT

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 22:  Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens shakes hands with Odell Beckham Jr. #13 of the Cleveland Browns after the game at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. Baltimore defeated Cleveland 31-15.

On Thursday, the Ravens will hold an introductory news conference for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. that could double as a window into quarterback Lamar Jackson’s future.

General manager Eric DeCosta is scheduled to attend. He might not say anything; at the team’s predraft news conference last week, he declined to comment on Jackson, not even mentioning him by name. Coach John Harbaugh is scheduled to attend. He also might not say anything, having said plenty after Jackson made his trade request public on March 27.

But Beckham, who FaceTimed with Jackson after he announced he’d agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal Sunday with the Ravens, then celebrated with the quarterback at a Miami nightclub, will probably have some thoughts. His next contract depends on his production this season, which means his next contract depends in part on the quarterback throwing him the ball.

Beckham would probably prefer that it be Jackson. So would the Ravens. Even Jackson might want that. But two-plus years into contract talks, a long-term deal still seems unlikely. And as the deadline to find some kind of resolution approaches, both sides are running out of levers to pull to tilt negotiations in their favor.

In early March, Jackson said he requested a trade from the Ravens, who he said had “not been interested in meeting my value.” In mid-March, the Ravens designated Jackson with the nonexclusive franchise tag, allowing him to test his market while keeping him under team control. In late March, Jackson announced his trade request.

Now, with their standoff simmering, it’s unclear who has the leverage. It might not be the Ravens, who desperately need a quarterback of Jackson’s talents to keep their Super Bowl window open. It might not be Jackson, who’s unsuccessfully shopped for a big-money deal in Baltimore and beyond. The real advantage might indeed belong to the rest of the NFL, to the general managers who can afford to wait out the process, ready to seize on Jackson’s eagerness to leave or DeCosta’s willingness to part with a former NFL Most Valuable Player.

As a possible inflection point in Jackson’s contract talks approaches — the NFL draft, which kicks off April 27 — here’s a look at the factors that could shape his market.

Outside interest

Almost a month after Jackson could start engaging teams in offer sheet negotiations, only one franchise has shown significant public interest in a deal: the Ravens. Even with Jackson announcing his trade request, outside interest has been almost nonexistent.

To force his way out of Baltimore, Jackson would need not only another suitor but also one willing to satisfy his contract demands. Because players designated with the franchise tag can’t be traded until they sign their tender, Jackson essentially has veto power over any potential deals. If a $32.4 million salary for 2023, with no financial commitments beyond this season, isn’t enticing enough to stay in Baltimore, why would it be any different elsewhere?

Jackson’s best hope is that the draft spurs a quarterback-needy team — or teams — into action. But that might be false hope. A team that wants Jackson would have to sacrifice considerable cap space and a handful of first-round draft picks. A team that wants a rookie quarterback needs only the pick to select him and the relatively tiny cap space to accommodate his rookie contract.

Two weeks from the draft, it seems no quarterback-needy team wants Jackson:

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  • Panthers (No. 1 overall draft pick): Carolina’s expected to draft a quarterback.
  • Texans (No. 2): Houston’s expected to draft a quarterback.
  • Colts (No. 4): Indianapolis could trade up for Arizona Cardinals’ No. 3 pick to draft a quarterback or remain at No. 4 and draft a quarterback. Team owner Jim Irsay said last month that he doesn’t “believe” in fully guaranteed contracts, a potentially significant hurdle for any team interested in acquiring Jackson.
  • Lions (No. 6): Detroit could pick a quarterback in the first round, and coach Dan Campbell last month backed Jared Goff as the team’s starter.
  • Falcons (No. 8): Atlanta coach Arthur Smith and owner Arthur Blank last month said the team is comfortable with 2022 third-round pick Desmond Ridder at quarterback.
  • Titans (No. 11): Ryan Tannehill is still under contract in Tennessee, and coach Mike Vrabel said last month that the team expects him to start this season.
  • Jets (No. 13): New York’s front office is still trying to finalize a deal with the Green Bay Packers for Aaron Rodgers.
  • Patriots (No. 14): While rumors have swirled around Mac Jones’ future in New England, the team is reportedly not expected to pursue Jackson.
  • Commanders (No. 16): Washington coach Ron Rivera said last month the team never looked into acquiring Jackson. The Commanders signed Jacoby Brissett to compete with Sam Howell this offseason for the starting job.
  • Buccaneers (No. 19): Coach Todd Bowles said last month that Tampa Bay doesn’t have the financial flexibility to pursue Jackson. The Buccaneers also signed Baker Mayfield this offseason.

The calculus of a potential deal changes radically after the draft. For the Ravens, a trade makes sense only if it helps them acquire another starting quarterback for 2023. They’d need to find one in a deal for Jackson, through another trade or via free agency. The quarterback wouldn’t have to be a Pro Bowl-level starter, but DeCosta has said the Ravens aren’t interested in a rebuild.

For Jackson, the longer he waits for an offer, the more of a team’s offseason workouts and offensive installation he misses. He also has only until July 17 to sign a long-term extension.

For the rest of the league, meanwhile, the draft could leave some teams desperate for a quarterback, or at least more willing to engage Jackson in negotiations. Teams that missed out on a top prospect could circle back to Jackson, finally willing to plug a gaping roster role at a steep cost.

Teams without a 2023 first-round pick, who under league rules can’t offer Jackson a predraft offer sheet, could also reach out. That includes the San Francisco 49ers, who have a first-round pick in 2024 and 2025, the required compensation for the Ravens if they decide not to match any offer sheet Jackson signs after the draft.

Who has the leverage? The Ravens, slightly. If no one outside Baltimore is interested in Jackson, the deal he covets won’t materialize. But if no one outside Baltimore is interested in Jackson, the Ravens also can’t trade him for assets commensurate with his value.

Holdout threat

If Jackson remains on the Ravens’ roster but holds out for either part of all of the 2023 season, their quarterback situation would be among the NFL’s worst.

The team’s only quarterback under contract is third-stringer Anthony Brown, a former undrafted free agent. Backup Tyler Huntley, who hasn’t signed his restricted-free-agent tender, is 3-5 as a backup. His 41.3 QBR last season would’ve ranked among the NFL’s lowest for qualifying quarterbacks. Even if the Ravens draft a quarterback with the No. 22 overall pick, their most likely target, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, likely wouldn’t be at full strength for offseason workouts as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in November.

But would Jackson ever let a holdout go that far? In an appearance last year on LeBron James’ talk show, “The Shop,” he said he wants to be a billionaire and a champion. By sitting out the 2023 season, Jackson would undercut his financial goal and punt on his football goal for at least another year. By waiting until the NFL’s deadline to sign his franchise tag tender or an offer sheet — the Tuesday following the 10th week of the regular season — Jackson would cost himself game checks and, because of how the tag ties up the Ravens financially, might also cost the team wins.

Jackson’s roads to financial fortune and team success are limited. Over his first five NFL seasons, Jackson has just $32.8 million in earnings and one playoff win. The Ravens’ nonexclusive franchise tag tender is worth $32.4 million; an extension would be worth many multiples of that. In Baltimore, he would also lead a team expected to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs and others for conference supremacy. A postseason run would bolster Jackson’s value more than any year on the sideline ever could.

Who has the leverage? Nobody. A holdout that carries into the season is a lose-lose proposition. The Ravens won’t want to play without their quarterback, and Jackson won’t want to lose millions every week.

Other QB contracts

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - OCTOBER 09:  Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals reacts after their 19-17 loss to Lamar Jackson #8 of the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Jackson is believed to be seeking a deal similar in structure to Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson’s fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract. But in the 13 months since Watson signed with Cleveland, the Ravens haven’t made Jackson an attractive enough offer. And in the four weeks since Jackson was designated with the nonexclusive franchise tag, neither have any of his other potential suitors, either.

“As an owner, I do not believe in fully guaranteed contracts,” the Colts’ Irsay told reporters at the NFL owners meetings last month, after Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard indicated the team hadn’t ruled out acquiring Jackson. “I think that a percentage is one thing, but from what I’ve seen from the NBA and baseball, I don’t see it as a positive competitively.”

The NFL’s quarterback market this offseason could further stamp Watson’s deal as an outlier. In the wake of Watson’s record-breaking contract, the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson signed megadeals last summer without fully guaranteed terms. Now, with the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts eligible for extensions, Jackson could watch another set of standout quarterbacks agree to conventional deals.

For now, it’s a staring contest. If tradition wins out, Jackson’s reported demands could make negotiations a nonstarter. But if another team blinks first and gives its homegrown star a fully guaranteed deal — especially if it’s a small-market franchise like Cincinnati — the decision could reshape the quarterback market. And Jackson’s, too.

“You’re sensitive to what’s going on around the league and what other players are getting,” Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin said at the NFL scouting combine, “because they’re going to be sensitive to the other deals that are getting done around the league.”

Who has the leverage? The Ravens, but that could change with just one signing.