For a few blessed years, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta had the NFL’s best asset: a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract. Lamar Jackson never counted more than $3 million against the salary cap over his first four seasons, when the team won over 75% of his starts. Even over the past two years, Jackson’s cap hit was never among the four highest at the position.

But when the bill (finally) came due last offseason, it was substantial. Jackson’s five-year, $260 million extension made him (briefly) the NFL’s highest-paid player. In 2024, his cap hit will rise from $22.2 million to $32.4 million. In 2025: $43.7 million. In 2026 and 2027: $74.7 million. When a Ravens player’s financial footprint starts to resemble recent Orioles payroll figures, it’s hard to call any deal a bargain.

DeCosta’s big investment on Jackson, though, has already paid off in the short term — Jackson’s second NFL Most Valuable Player award is proof positive of that — and now might age gracefully in the long term as well. With the league’s announcement Friday that the 2024 salary cap would rise to $255.4 million per team, a record jump of $30.6 million, the Ravens will have their most important contract locked in for a period of potentially skyrocketing spending.

Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens speaks during the NFL Honors award show ahead of the Super Bowl 58 football game. (David J. Phillip/AP)

“It was nice to see that number,” DeCosta told reporters Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “It helps us this year, but it also helps us in the coming years as we project what we think that salary cap is going to be moving out in years ’25 and ’26 as well. It does give you a bigger picture of the landscape of football and what that means, salary cap-wise, from a roster-building standpoint. I think we’re excited about the potential that we have to be a good team this year, and we think that we’ll have some flexibility to remain good in the coming years.”

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Jackson’s rising price tag underscores the paradox of roster construction: It’s hard to win the Super Bowl without a top-10 quarterback, but top-10-quarterback contracts make it hard to win the Super Bowl. Only one QB this century has won an NFL title with a deal taking up more than 13% of his team’s salary cap. He happens to be maybe the most talented passer in league history. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes did it in 2022 (17.2% of the cap) and again this past season (16.8%).

Jackson’s 2024 cap hit (12.6% share) is far from onerous, but that was by design. His contract was back-loaded to accommodate more spending in these early years. The longer Jackson plays under his deal, the tougher it will be for him to deliver surplus value. To keep their Super Bowl window open down the road, the Ravens will either need Jackson to remain a superstar — especially one who stays off the injury report — or the league’s salary cap to start a torrid climb. Or, ideally, both.

That goes for other teams with megadeals on their budgets, too. In all, 14 quarterbacks have a cap hit of at least $25 million in 2024, and the top seven all check in at over $47 million.

“You’ve got to be really judicious with your money,” said Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin, who in September signed quarterback Joe Burrow to a five-year, $275 million contract extension, making him the new highest-paid player in league history. “You’ve got to determine what’s needed and what’s just wanted. Like I’ve said before, it’s a finite pie, and we slice it up a lot of different ways. We want to keep as many good players as we can, but there’s always hard decisions to make as you go through roster building.”

It’s tough to know just how big the pie might grow from year to year. New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen told NBC Sports that the team’s “conservative” projection for the 2024 cap was about $243 million — more than $10 million off the actual figure.

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The surge was partly the result of unique economic forces that had limited the cap’s growth in recent years. While the cap is tied to rising league revenue, the NFL’s now-modest $42.3 million increase from 2021 to 2023 accounted for its repayment of player benefits that had been deferred during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The unprecedented $30 million increase per club in this year’s Salary Cap is the result of the full repayment of all amounts advanced by the clubs and deferred by the players during the Covid pandemic,” the NFL said in a statement announcing the 2024 cap, “as well as an extraordinary increase in media revenue for the 2024 season.”

With the NFL finding ever more lucrative revenue streams from those broadcast partners — Amazon’s Prime Video reportedly paid an estimated $120 million for the exclusive rights to one postseason game next season — spending on the league’s most important position might soon stabilize. Relatively speaking, anyway.

According to Spotrac, the median cap hit a decade ago for one of the NFL’s 10 highest-paid quarterbacks was about 14.5% of the total cap. By 2020, the year before the pandemic sent the league’s cap plunging, the median for a top-10 QB was 16.9%. Last season, despite the cap’s rebound, the average had jumped to 22.9%, its seventh-straight year of growth. Ahead of free agency, the 2024 median remains 22.9% of the cap. More $30 million cap jumps could keep it around there in the near future.

Yet even as the new wave of megadeals more accurately reflects the outsized importance of modern quarterbacks, the scale of their financial commitments can leave little margin for error.

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“The quarterback numbers have jumped more drastically than the cap has, which really makes it hard, because you have to have a franchise quarterback,” said Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane, whose star QB, Josh Allen, will count $47.1 million against the cap in 2024 and $56.6 million in 2025.

“I mean, it’s proven. You look at most years, the final four, eight teams, most of those teams each year ... they have a franchise guy. So we feel fortunate to have Josh. But you’re building your whole team around that contract, and you’re trying to massage it. And so that’ll continue to be something we have to look at, and the numbers continue to rise drastically, and it’s probably not going to slow down.”

Neither will the NFL’s money machine, of course. That’s why the Ravens were willing to pay for Jackson, and the Bengals for Burrow, and the Bills for Allen. There are only so many players who can lead a franchise to glory, and with that glory comes, yes, even more money.

INDIANAPOLIS: General manager Joe Hortiz of the Los Angeles Chargers speaks to the media during the NFL Combine at the Indiana Convention Center on Feb. 27, 2024, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

But it never hurts to have a little more spending power. The only thing better than having a superstar quarterback is a bigger budget to get him another star or two.

“I think as the salary cap grows, obviously, all contracts are going to grow,” said former Ravens director of player personnel and new Los Angeles Chargers general manager Joe Hortiz. He could speak from experience. After he was hired away from Baltimore last month, Hortiz inherited one of the few contracts richer than Jackson’s. Quarterback Justin Herbert’s five-year deal, signed almost three months after Jackson’s, is worth $262.5 million.

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“The perspective of Lamar’s contract — I mean, I think both sides felt really good about the deal when it got done, and I think they’re both happy it got done. And I expect them to be happy going forward, for sure.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Giana Han contributed to this story from Indianapolis.

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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