For the past two years, through gestures big and small, Ravens officials have shown how committed they are to a happy future with their star quarterback, how much they believe in a better tomorrow with Lamar Jackson.
They have solicited his input on roster decisions, rebuilding their offensive line and now their receiving corps. They have arranged for more optimal practice schedules, pushing training camp to the afternoon. They have signed friends and family to their roster. They have defended him amid controversies (some of his own making) and criticism. They have reiterated their love for and confidence in him. They have remained publicly optimistic about their relationship, even when he’s indicated otherwise. They have offered him a lot of money. They have declined to comment on just how much, out of respect for Jackson and his process.
It is a process that has led both sides to maybe the most significant inflection point in their on-and-off-and-on-again negotiations. On Thursday night, the Ravens will enter the first round of the NFL draft without their most important player under contract and with a stated openness to taking a quarterback. In a QB1-desperate league, it could represent their last best chance to prepare for a near future without Jackson. It could also be another meaningful opportunity to invest in the team the Ravens want to built around him.
“Who do we think has the best chance to come in and make us the best football team?” general manager Eric DeCosta said at the team’s predraft news conference earlier this month. “If that’s a quarterback, if that’s a receiver, a corner, an offensive tackle, we’re going to look at that very strongly and make the best decision we can knowing that over time, we think, building a team, best available player is the right way to go.”
In the seven weeks since DeCosta designated Jackson with the nonexclusive franchise tag, allowing the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player to test his value on the open market, only the Ravens have shown interest in signing him. No suitors have emerged with an offer sheet for Jackson, his market depressed by any number of factors: a quarterback-rich draft, his injury history, a reported insistence on a fully guaranteed deal, the unwillingness of teams to send the Ravens two first-round picks, resignation to the likelihood that the Ravens would just match any offer sheet Jackson signs.
Even the bumpiest pothole of their offseason — a trade request that Jackson announced in late March, just as coach John Harbaugh was meeting with reporters at the NFL owners’ meetings — has seemingly been smoothed over. After the Ravens signed Odell Beckham Jr. to a lucrative one-year deal earlier this month, the star wide receiver said “the goal was to come here and have that possibility to play” with Jackson. DeCosta said he hadn’t spoken with Jackson since finalizing the deal, but he reiterated that Jackson “is in our plans.”
If he’s not, or if the Ravens fear a potential holdout as contract talks drag on into the regular season, this weekend’s draft offers a workaround. The team has been linked to Day 3 quarterbacks Georgia’s Stetson Bennett and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who could challenge the recently re-signed Tyler Huntley for a backup role next season.
The more extreme alternative involves a first-round quarterback. The Ravens, who have the No. 22 overall pick, met with Florida’s Anthony Richardson, one of the most athletic quarterback prospects in NFL history, during the predraft process. If he or Kentucky’s Will Levis falls out of the top 10, would the Ravens consider moving up to draft either? A swap would be surprising and costly, especially for a front office looking to add more picks to the five it currently has. But it would not be unprecedented; only five years ago, with Joe Flacco’s starting spot secure, the Ravens traded up to draft Jackson at the end of the first round.
“You’re on two-plus years, for whatever reason, fair or unfair, whatever it may be, of not getting a deal” finalized with Jackson, ESPN analyst and former NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum said in an interview. “So at some point, you have to make the albeit-reluctant observation or thought that, ‘Hey, it may just not work here. And what does Plan B really look like? And we have to now be prepared for that.’”
Even if the Ravens address their biggest roster needs in the draft — cornerback, wide receiver, “something that’s not threatening to Lamar,” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said last week — another crucial decision might not be far off.
Jackson has until July 17 to agree to a multiyear extension with the Ravens or sign a multiyear offer sheet with another team. If the Ravens decide not to match an offer sheet that Jackson signs after the draft, they would receive 2024 and 2025 first-round picks from his new team as compensation. The value of those two picks could be relatively limited; Jackson, who’s 45-16 as a starter in Baltimore, would be expected to lead a playoff contender. His new franchise might not have a top-10 pick for years.
A post-draft departure would leave the Ravens in a tenuous spot: rich with talent on offense, defense and special teams, but missing a difference maker at the game’s most important position, and perhaps a long ways from getting one. Division-winning quarterbacks, much less Super Bowl-winning ones, are not often found in the months before a team’s season opener.
A pivot to the 2024 draft, and another quarterback-rich class, could also prove difficult. Even if a Jackson-less Ravens team were to stumble next season, DeCosta’s front office might lack the draft assets necessary to acquire a franchise quarterback. USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye, the early favorites for the top two picks in next year’s draft, could still end up out of reach. How many other prospects would make the Ravens’ one-year reset worthwhile?
“I think it’s actually a chance to be a pretty deep draft at quarterback next year,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last week. “But the two guys that everybody is kind of pointing to and everybody is talking about, and the whole thought process of, ‘I have a bunch of picks next year, and I can trade up and get one of those two guys’ — well, when you get special quarterbacks, no one is trading out of those spots.
“You can have all the first-round picks that you want, if you are not going to pick [No.] 1 or 2, you aren’t going to sniff either one of those guys. That, to me, is a danger of putting all your eggs in that basket.”
The circle of people who know what the Ravens will do is small. This weekend, they will gather around a big table in the war room at the team’s Owings Mills facility and plot out their next moves.
For now, the plan includes Jackson. Only two weeks ago, DeCosta said he couldn’t imagine the best version of the 2023 Ravens playing without him. He called Jackson “the right player for this team to lead us to where we want to be.” Starting Thursday night, DeCosta will do what he does every draft: Try to find the best player available.
What if it’s another quarterback?