INDIANAPOLIS — When the Kansas City Chiefs signed Patrick Mahomes to the kind of contract extension that the Ravens hope Lamar Jackson will sign sometime soon, general manager Brett Veach already had a plan in mind.
Yes, the Chiefs would pay their most important player more money than they’d ever paid anyone. Yes, Veach was entering into a deal that had almost no escape hatch. But at least Mahomes’ 10-year, $450 million contract, finalized in July 2020, would give Kansas City’s front office a framework for building around their superstar quarterback long term.
In that record-breaking commitment, Veach saw value. If Mahomes has been the supercharged engine of two Super Bowl-winning Chiefs teams, his megadeal, for almost three years now, has served as the franchise’s road map, helping Veach know where to turn next.
“It’s a huge advantage for us, just because we know what our offseason looks like, by and large,” Veach said Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine. “The big piece of that puzzle is something that we have a degree of certainty [about]. And things will have to get changed and adjusted as we go there as well. But just knowing that Pat will be here for a long time and knowing that the biggest part of that pie is accounted for just helps us focus our attention on the offensive and defensive side, and not to have to worry about the most important piece.”
The Ravens would like that peace of mind. Jackson has been eligible for an extension since 2021, but contract talks have produced little else but a need for more contract talks. Jackson enters the final week of the NFL’s franchise tag window without a deal for the 2023 season. If general manager Eric DeCosta and Jackson can’t agree on an extension by March 6, at the latest, the Ravens are expected to tag Jackson, their last bit of leverage to keep him in Baltimore for at least another year.
“You can’t win in this league without a strong quarterback,” DeCosta said. “That’s been proven. So we want Lamar here. We think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He’s certainly one of our best players, and we want him back. We understand that living in a world without a quarterback is a bad world to live in. I think there’s a lot of GMs and coaches who would probably say that, who are living in that world right now. We’re aware of that. I think we’ve been blessed since 2008 to have Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson. And my goal is to continue that.”
Even if Jackson signs a franchise tag tender this offseason — the riskier nonexclusive option would cost $32.4 million, while the exclusive option is worth a projected $45 million — the Ravens’ plans beyond 2023 would be no more secure. Next year’s offseason could look much like this year’s, with Jackson’s negotiations dragging on into the spring and the franchise tag under consideration once more.
For a front office with other business to conduct, that’s a problem. Under DeCosta, the Ravens have been proactive in negotiating extensions with young players, seeking not only to prevent free-agent bidding wars but also help their cost certainty. The Ravens know how much they’ll pay kicker Justin Tucker through 2027, how much they’ll pay cornerback Marlon Humphrey through 2026, how much they’ll pay tight end Mark Andrews and left tackle Ronnie Stanley through 2025.
But if the Ravens are committed to keeping Jackson on year-to-year contracts while they work toward a long-term deal, DeCosta will be flying somewhat blind into the team’s financial future. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, running back J.K. Dobbins and defensive lineman Justin Madubuike are among the team’s starters newly eligible for extensions this offseason. Jackson’s contract situation will dictate not only how quickly DeCosta can approach them about new deals but also how much he can reasonably offer. That roster uncertainty could then trickle down into how the Ravens value certain positions in the draft.
“It is a wrench,” DeCosta said Wednesday of not knowing Jackson’s long-term cost. “We don’t know, and so, yeah, it slows you up a little bit. It does kind of create a little bit of a haze as to what the future’s going to look like with your roster. There are some things that we’re not going to do right now that maybe we would try to do.”
That’s part of the cost of paying for a big-time quarterback. DeCosta acknowledged at the combine that defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who’s returning for his 16th NFL season, could be a salary cap casualty. Other valuable contributors, including running back Gus Edwards and safety Chuck Clark, could also be released to make space for Jackson on the team’s ledger.
“There will be some tough decisions that we have to make with the roster, like there are every single year,” DeCosta said.
The hope is that a quarterback like Jackson will make all the hard calls easier to stomach. First-year Arizona Cardinals general manager Monti Ossenfort, who inherited quarterback Kyler Murray’s contract extension, said Tuesday that “everybody in the league is looking for that guy we can build around long term, and there’s a guy here that’s under contract long term.”
The Ravens don’t have that with Jackson, not yet, which leaves them with two equally daunting paths out of their salary cap quagmire. Keep Jackson on the franchise tag, and DeCosta gets an All-Pro talent but little salary cap certainty. Trade Jackson, and DeCosta gets a financial reset at the expense of the team’s most important asset.
“There’s no bigger question right now, and no bigger decision — there’s no bigger challenge for this organization moving forward than this contract,” DeCosta said. “So all of my effort — well, most of my effort — is focused on this. I would say the rest of it is focused on the draft and free agency. But you’re right: It’s hard to really have a clear vision of what the future’s going to look like until we can get this contract done.”