PHOENIX — There’s never been a trade target like Lamar Jackson.
Not Joe Montana, whom Steve Young had already supplanted as San Francisco’s starting quarterback by the time the 49ers dealt him to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993.
Not Matthew Stafford, who had one Pro Bowl appearance and no playoff wins in his 12 years with the Detroit Lions before landing with the Los Angeles Rams in 2021.
And certainly not Deshaun Watson, whose alleged sexual assault history overshadowed his franchise-changing talents as the Houston Texans looked for a trade partner last offseason — and found one in the Cleveland Browns.
Even with coach John Harbaugh reaffirming the team’s commitment to keeping the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player in Baltimore, Jackson’s request for a trade, publicized as Harbaugh was meeting with reporters at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, has opened up a new realm of possibility for the next step in his negotiation saga.
Harbaugh said Monday that he expected Jackson to be starting for the Ravens in Week 1. He also indicated that the Ravens would be open to talking about a deal, a notable departure from Eric DeCosta’s comments in January, when the Ravens general manager declined to comment on the possibility.
“Everyone’s talking all the time about everything in this league,” Harbaugh said. “That’s just the way business is done. So I’m sure that business will be done the way it’s always done. But for me, my perspective, I’m getting ready for Lamar. That’s what I’m doing.”
He later added: “We’ve had trade conversations with lots of teams about lots of players, in all honesty, and we haven’t made one yet. So that’s how it works.”
But how would a trade for a player of Jackson’s caliber and age (he turned 26 in January) work? Here’s who could be involved, and where a deal might take the Ravens.
New York Jets: Jets general manager Joe Douglas, a former Ravens scout, said Monday that the team has had “some productive conversations” with the Green Bay Packers about a trade package for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “We’re not where we need to be yet, but I feel we’re in a good place,” he added.
The Jets are a star quarterback away from a potential playoff run, and Rodgers has been their preferred target. But Rodgers’ public breakup with Green Bay has offered Douglas little in the way of leverage. Jackson’s trade request might give the Jets some wiggle room; if they’re not amenable to Green Bay’s demands, why not move on to Jackson?
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts have the No. 4 overall pick in the draft. This year, that might not be high enough to get a quarterback they covet. The Carolina Panthers are expected to take their top player at the position with the No. 1 overall pick. The Houston Texans will likely take a quarterback with the next pick, too. The Arizona Cardinals probably won’t look for a Kyler Murray replacement, but they could trade the No. 3 overall pick to a team that’s in the market for a passer.
If Indianapolis wants a quarterback with the No. 4 overall pick, their draft position could leave them with their hands tied. Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis are all considered top-10 picks. Would general manager Chris Ballard be comfortable taking the fourth quarterback on his board? On Monday, he fueled speculation about a possible deal for Jackson, telling reporters: “Anytime a special player is available, which he is, you’ve got to do the work.”
Atlanta Falcons: The rebuilding Falcons have the salary cap space to give Jackson a top-of-the-market deal. They have the offensive line and young weapons to keep him happy. They have a coach in Arthur Smith who can make the most of his dual-threat ability. And they have a cheap, expendable quarterback room led by Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinecke.
But does owner Arthur Blank have the appetite to give Jackson a contract that is, if not fully guaranteed, among the most expensive in NFL history? That’s something every owner with an interest in Jackson will have to consider.
New England Patriots: Patriots coach Bill Belichick, also the team’s de facto general manager, has long been an admirer of Jackson’s. But he declined to comment Monday when asked about Jackson’s trade request. New England owner Robert Kraft was more forthcoming, telling reporters that the rapper Meek Mill had texted Kraft a few days ago to say that Jackson wanted to play for the Patriots. Kraft said the decision on whether to pursue him would be Belichick’s.
New England starter Mac Jones is coming off a disappointing 2022, and Belichick has been noncommittal about who’s in line to start at quarterback in 2023. The financial paradigm of a deal for Jackson, however, would be markedly different than it was for Tom Brady, who took team-friendly deals to help the Patriots build Super Bowl-contending rosters.
Detroit Lions: Lions general manager Brad Holmes said Monday that the team “loves” its quarterback room and that Jared Goff is “our guy.” But Goff has his limitations and just two years left on his contract. With two top-18 picks in this year’s draft, Detroit has the draft capital to help drive a trade.
Ben Johnson helped turn around the Lions’ offense in his first year as their coordinator, then turned down opportunities to interview for head coaching jobs elsewhere. With Jackson leading an offense built around its strong offensive line, Detroit could have one of the NFL’s most creative offenses.
Washington Commanders: Until a sale of the team is finalized, it’s hard to imagine the Commanders’ owner — whether it’s Daniel Snyder or his successor — green-lighting a record-breaking deal. (With Snyder, though, anything is possible, especially given his animus toward his fellow owners.)
A trade for Jackson could swing the balance of power locally back to Washington, which has wandered in the quarterback wilderness for years and has built an impressive, young receiving corps.
Tennessee Titans: The Titans can move on from Ryan Tannehill without too much trouble. Tennessee could create $17.8 million in cap space by releasing or trading him before June 1, or it could create $27 million in savings by releasing or trading him after June 1. Coach Mike Vrabel on Monday said he expects Tannehill to open the season as his quarterback, but added that he wouldn’t commit to “anybody being on our roster in September.”
New general manager Ran Carthon was a member of San Francisco’s front office in 2021, when the 49ers traded up from No. 12 to draft quarterback Trey Lance with the third overall selection. Could he take another big swing to upgrade a Titans offense lacking in young talent?
If the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal that Watson got from the Browns last year is Jackson’s guiding light in contract talks, Cleveland’s trade package could also shape the Ravens’ baseline demands. Last March, the Houston Texans traded Watson — still mired in allegations of sexual assault — and a 2024 sixth-round pick to Cleveland for the Browns’ first-round picks in 2022 (No. 13 overall), 2023 and 2024; a third-round pick in 2023; and fourth-round picks in 2022 and 2024.
If Jackson’s trade demands have weakened the Ravens’ leverage, the Denver Broncos’ deal for Russell Wilson could offer another template. Also last March, the Seattle Seahawks traded Wilson and a 2022 fourth-round pick to Denver for the Broncos’ first-round picks in 2022 (No. 9 overall) and 2023, their second-round picks in 2022 and 2023, a fifth-round pick in 2022, quarterback Drew Lock, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and tight end Noah Fant.
If not Jackson, then who? That uncertainty could hinder a Ravens trade as much as any contract demands from Jackson. DeCosta said in January that Harbaugh jokes with him about his disinterest in a “total rebuild,” and any deal that renders the Ravens’ quarterback position a weakness will leave the team out of the mix in an uber-competitive AFC.
“Our goal is to always have that window open, when we can compete to win the whole thing,” DeCosta said.
Here’s where the Ravens could turn in a Jackson-free 2023.
Tyler Huntley: Huntley is 3-5 as a starter in Baltimore, and his struggles last season underscored his limitations as a quarterback. He struggled to push the ball downfield. He dealt with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. He was either too reluctant as a runner, too unsafe as a runner or not threatening enough as a runner to warrant more touches from then-offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
The Ravens valued Huntley enough to place a right-of-first-refusal tender on him, but that didn’t stop them from poking around the free-agent market. They reportedly looked into signing quarterbacks such as Baker Mayfield and Jacoby Brissett, who instead signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Commanders, respectively.
Ryan Tannehill: Tannehill’s under contract through 2023, so if the Ravens don’t believe the Titans will release him, they could trade for him. If Tannehill’s $27 million salary is prohibitive, the Titans could help facilitate a deal by covering some of the bill.
Tannehill turns 35 in July and missed five games last season with an ankle injury, but he could be a solid bridge to the Ravens’ next franchise quarterback. According to analytics site RBSDM.com, he finished 13th among quarterbacks in expected points added per play in 2021 and 17th last season. (EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.)
Draft prospects: With the draft a month out, the Ravens will have to do their homework on the quarterbacks in this year’s class. Young is maybe the most polished, but his size makes him an outlier. Stroud is a natural passer but isn’t especially mobile. Richardson is one of the most athletic quarterback prospects ever but lacks polish. Levis has prototypical measurables but can struggle to find his rhythm on drop-backs. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, a possible Day 2 pick, is a prolific passer who turned 25 in January and is recovering from a torn ACL.