Ravens coach John Harbaugh ended this past season with a persistent hope: that injured quarterback Lamar Jackson would be healthy enough to return. After a Week 13 knee sprain, Jackson never did.
Now Harbaugh and team officials enter this offseason with an even longer-held hope: that Jackson and the Ravens can agree on a long-term contract extension. After two years of stalled negotiations, the clock is ticking.
“I’m like all the fans out there and everybody else; I’ll have my fingers crossed, and my toes crossed, and I’ll be saying prayers,” Harbaugh said at his and general manager Eric DeCosta’s end-of-season news conference earlier this month. “I have every faith that it’s going to get done, and we have the best people in the world doing it. Eric DeCosta, there’s nobody better. Eric wants him here, I want him here, [Ravens owner] Steve [Bisciotti] wants him here, and Lamar wants to be here. So it’s going to work out.”
The Ravens are running out of time to find a solution. The window to designate pending free agents like Jackson as franchise players, who can return on lucrative one-year deals, opens Feb. 21 and closes March 7. Free agency starts March 15. The NFL draft starts April 27.
As the Ravens try to build a Super Bowl-worthy roster for 2023 — “We’re very, very close,” DeCosta said earlier this month — they’ll have to account for every possibility with Jackson, both good and bad. Here are eight potential paths ranked by how much they’d help the Ravens next season, from least to most.
8. Ravens don’t tag or sign Jackson
When pressed for salary cap space, the Ravens have let top free agents walk, often recouping some of their lost value with a compensatory draft pick. That won’t happen here. Jackson’s importance to the franchise far exceeds that of, say, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the New England Patriots in 2021. The Ravens aren’t letting Jackson enter unrestricted free agency if all they’re getting back is salary cap space and a late-third-round pick in 2024.
7. Ravens tag Jackson, who sits out 2023 season
If the Ravens designate Jackson with the exclusive franchise tag — a more restrictive one-year option than the non-exclusive tag, which would allow him to negotiate long-term deals with other teams — this becomes a possibility, albeit a slight one.
Without an extension finalized, Jackson would enter next season on another one-year deal. Would the risks of playing outweigh the rewards? While another severe injury would hurt his leverage in contract negotiations, Jackson would be forfeiting a franchise tag tender worth a projected $45 million — about 37% more than his career earnings.
Quarterbacks are rarely tagged, but tagged players rarely decline to sign. Former Ravens running back Le’Veon Bell is a notable exception. By sitting out the Steelers’ 2018 season after Pittsburgh had tagged him for a second straight year, Bell gave up $14.5 million.
If Jackson does sit out the season, the Ravens could tag him again next offseason, though not at the same price. The value of a second consecutive tag would be 20% higher than Jackson’s first tender.
6. Ravens tag Jackson, who sits out until midseason
If Jackson balks at playing under the franchise tag, his return could come as late as November. Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, players who’ve received a tender must sign by the Tuesday following the 10th week of the regular season. If they don’t, they’re barred from playing that season. Jackson’s cap hit would fall with every game he misses, but the Ravens are 3-7 over the past two seasons in regular-season games he hasn’t started.
5. Ravens tag and trade Jackson
The range of possible outcomes here, in both the near and long term, is vast. But whatever trade offers the Ravens might consider, it’s highly unlikely they’d end up with a starting quarterback as talented as Jackson. Other than perhaps the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s top passers aren’t for sale. The lower-tier quarterbacks who could be available in free agency or a trade — Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill — have obvious limitations. The draft’s top prospects will have rookie-year struggles.
However the Ravens proceed, offensive stability, much less improvement, is rare among teams that part with a quarterback of Jackson’s caliber. The Detroit Lions fell from 16th to 29th in offensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, after trading away Matthew Stafford following the 2020 season. The Houston Texans ranked 13th in 2020, Deshaun Watson’s final active season with the team, and finished in the bottom three each of the next two seasons. The Patriots dropped 12 spots after Tom Brady left following the 2019 season.
Even the Seahawks’ fruitful decision to trade Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos last year, through which they acquired two first-round and two second-round picks, has left their quarterback situation somewhat unsettled. Geno Smith impressed in his first year as a starter, but questions remain about Seattle’s long-term commitment to him.
4. Ravens tag Jackson, who sits out until after training camp
Jackson hinted at a similar possibility last June. With his rookie contract set to expire after the 2022 season, Jackson was asked at mandatory minicamp whether he would attend training camp or play in the season opener if he didn’t have a long-term deal finalized. “We’re having conversations about it,” said Jackson, who, earlier in the Ravens’ offseason program, had skipped the team’s voluntary organized team activities for the first time in his career.
But rather than report for camp and “hold in” — using his leverage to negotiate a new deal and avoid steep team fines — Jackson practiced without an extension. “I want to win at the end of the day,” he said early in camp. “I just want to be great. I just want to work with my brothers at the end of the day. I don’t want to leave them out there hanging. That’s not me. That’s never been me.”
This year, the situation is a little different. In 2022, Jackson was under contract. In 2023, until he signs a franchise tag tender or new deal, he’s not obligated to report for team activities. Which means he could miss important developmental periods with the Ravens’ new offensive coordinator and his new teammates.
3. Jackson signs exclusive franchise tag tender
DeCosta indicated earlier this month that he was still uncertain over which tag to apply to Jackson. If history’s any indication, an exclusive tender is most likely. Since 2011, five quarterbacks have been franchise-tagged: Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Michael Vick. Only Cousins received the non-exclusive tag — and a year later, in 2017, he got the exclusive tag.
While an exclusive tag would prevent other teams from negotiating with Jackson, it would also come at a significant cost. Jackson’s cap hit would nearly double, from $23 million in 2022 to a projected $45 million in 2023, leaving the Ravens with little financial flexibility this offseason.
“Any deal with Lamar is going to affect the salary cap, whether we get a long-term deal done or we do an exclusive franchise or the traditional franchise” tag, DeCosta said. “It’s going to affect the cap. Those are big, big numbers. We’re fortunate, I think, that we have a better salary cap [situation] than most. …
“We have a lot of salary cap room that we can use, so that creates some aspect of flexibility with us, contract-wise, and also franchise-wise as well. It gives us a couple different options. Regardless, it’s not going to be a situation where the market’s open, and we’re just going and signing guys left and right. That’s not going to happen in any way. There’s really no scenario [where] that’s probably going to be the case. We’ll be selective, we’ll be targeted, and we’ll find guys like we always do that we think can build this team and help us be the best we can be.”
2. Jackson signs non-exclusive franchise tag tender
This is another long-shot possibility. If the Ravens use the non-exclusive tag, Jackson could negotiate with other NFL teams in hopes of finding a better long-term deal. If he signed an offer sheet from another team, the Ravens would have five days to match the offer.
If they didn’t match, the Ravens would receive two first-round picks from Jackson’s new team as compensation. (If the deal’s done before the draft, the Ravens would receive one pick in this year’s draft and another in next year’s. If the deal’s finalized after the draft, the first of the two picks would come in 2024.)
“No matter what, we will have a plan in place, like we always do,” DeCosta said. “We’ve been down this road before in different ways with different players, and we’ll do what we think is best for the club.”
If Jackson doesn’t sign a multiyear contract by the mid-July deadline for franchise players, whether it’s with the Ravens or another team, he’d be stuck with the non-exclusive franchise tag tender. That’s projected to be about $32.5 million, a team-friendly figure. Nine quarterbacks have higher cap hits next year, according to salary cap website Spotrac.
1. Jackson signs long-term deal
An extension would make everyone happy, for at least a little while. Jackson would get his megadeal. Harbaugh would keep his quarterback. And DeCosta would find some clarity on the Ravens’ salary cap picture.
Because of how most long-term extensions are structured, a new deal would likely deliver cap relief this year. In Denver, Wilson’s five-year extension through 2028 is worth $48.5 million annually, but the cap hit in the first year is just $35.4 million. In Green Bay, Rodgers’ three-year extension through 2024 is worth $50.3 million annually, but the cap hit in his restructured first year was just $28.5 million.
If Jackson’s cap hit next year is around $30 million, the Ravens could accommodate his new deal without needing too many cost-cutting measures. According to Russell Street Report, with a projected $225 million salary cap in 2023, the Ravens would have about $28 million in space before Jackson’s next contract lands on the books.
Considering all the Ravens’ other looming costs — their draft class, potential veteran additions, emergency in-season signings — the lower Jackson’s cap hit is, the better off their front office will be. For 2023, anyway.
“We all understand this is a business transaction,” DeCosta said. He added: “We’ll put our heads together; we’ll negotiate a contract. I told Lamar that, ‘Hey, this thing has been a burden for both of us.’ I said, ‘But when this thing is over, we are going to feel like a million bucks,’ and that’s truly how I feel.”