A week ago, Lamar Jackson shook up the NFL news cycle when he posted on Twitter that he requested a trade from the Ravens on March 2. Five days after that request, he was smacked with a nonexclusive franchise tag, and it’s been a rollercoaster of events ever since.
The situation grows more bewildering by the day. So here we are wondering, “Has Lamar played his last game for the Ravens? Why won’t the team pay him his fair market value and lock him up for the next five years? Has the franchise cut off their nose to spite their face? Is Lamar crazy? Are the Ravens crazy?”
Everybody’s got an opinion, whether it’s pro-management for their handling of a business negotiation whose result can’t dampen their ability to build a roster, or whether it’s pro-Jackson for fighting his salary to be commensurate with his rare and remarkable talents.
How this will play out is anyone’s guess. So The Banner reached out to a few people connected to the pro sports space who’ve been following this saga to get their thoughts about the drama or predict what they think is next.
DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) since 2009.
On March 16, the NFLPA released a memo that the league’s franchise owners could be colluding against Jackson and alleged they were “criminally gaming the game itself” to avoid paying fully guaranteed contracts. We talked to Smith last week, who doubled down on that thought.
Smith: “The NFL has always hated losing control and it is with a certain twisted irony that the fight for free agency started in Baltimore with John Mackey, who lost his job suing the National Football League on behalf of players not yet born.
“The NFL is determined to finish the fight in Baltimore and time will tell if players, particularly quarterbacks, want to fight. Lamar has put himself out there, like John, and we will see how this unfolds. I think they are colluding against him.”
Wally Williams, the Ravens’ first player to receive the franchise tag in 1998.
Williams, a former offensive lineman, played 10 years in the NFL for the Ravens, Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints (1993-2003). He is one of eight players in Ravens’ history to ever receive a franchise tag.
“... This contract situation is unique in that Lamar is representing himself. I’ve never represented myself, but even with an agent, these negotiations get personal. They were very personal for me during my negotiations with every team that I played for. It’s part of the business. Their job is to make money and keep overhead costs down, and the player’s job is to fight for his fair market value and get as much money as possible. That’s how it goes.
“All gloves are off right now when you’re talking about a situation like this where there is a substantial amount of money at stake. I don’t think it’s over for Lamar and the Ravens, despite his trade request. To me, it’s not over until the season starts and he’s not here. I think the drama is just starting to begin. I don’t see it being totally out of the cusp of reality that he could still be a Raven next year and lead the team to where it needs to go.
“This has gone on far too long and I blame it on the callousness of the Ravens. Because at the end of the day, they’re the daddy controlling the tempo of how this thing plays out. They need to resolve this as quickly as possible and keep our guy here. As a former Raven and fan of the game, I hope it works out for Lamar and Baltimore because we have a gem right there that can take the team very far every year if he has the right weapons. It would be a shame to lose him.
“I think it’s a 60 percent chance that he’ll be back. The way the market is playing out, it may be stagnant right now but let’s see what happens after the draft. As this thing progresses, I think the chances of Lamar returning are greater.”
Leigh Steinberg, renowned sports agent, who has represented the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick eight times.
Steinberg is the founder of Steinberg Sports & Entertainment and has negotiated over $3 billion in contracts for clients like Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Patrick Mahomes.
Steinberg: “This is extremely unusual that these negotiations between Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have gotten to this point. The hardest thing to find in pro football is a franchise quarterback, someone you can consistently win with and build around for the next 10 or 12 years. More importantly, someone who in critical situations, in adversity, can compartmentalize and elevate their level of play to take the team to and through victory. It’s extremely difficult to get through the playoffs and win a Super Bowl without a franchise quarterback.
“Let’s agree that Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert are franchise quarterbacks. Tom Brady certainly was one, but so is Lamar Jackson. In cases like this, the negotiation generally occurs seamlessly because after the player’s third year, that contract gets extended. And because the position is so critical, you rarely have a publicly played-out scenario like this. Normally, all you’ll see is a case where the team is happy with the player, which they are, and a player that is happy with the team, which he has been, so this should be a happy marriage.
“This is not a situation where it’s great for either side to use the franchise tag. One point I’ll make is that the minute these discussions become public and you get the outside world taking sides, it’s not a constructive situation. And in general, in my 49 years of representing elite quarterbacks in these situations, if a player wants to get traded, the last thing they should do is publicly demand to be traded.. Because then the rest of the league knows that the incumbent team has damaged goods on their hands and the trade offers they’ll make don’t give the team full value for the player. So it’s counterintuitive because by publicly asking for a trade, it becomes more difficult to make one.
“It’s not helpful to play a scenario like this out in public because the team gets defensive when they get challenged by the press and the public. Credit John Harbaugh with handling this perfectly in terms of his statements in support of Lamar, but there’s every chance of a blowup, misunderstanding or a meltdown of the relationship as this continues to play out publicly.
“The reality is that the quarterback market is going to keep expanding. There’s new television money coming in and this is the biggest single year that the salary cap has expanded. There’s plenty of money in the sport, so the challenge is how to create a contract that maximally compensates Jackson while still allowing the team to put a supporting crew around him that will get the team to the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl.
“It requires some cap magic and creative structuring. My point is that the market isn’t going down, it’s going to continue to go up. Whoever is the next franchise quarterback up gets the benefit of where the current market stands. The sticking point here is probably the guarantees in Deshaun Watson’s contract, with one side saying that was an aberration and the other side saying, ‘No, that is the market that has been established as the precedent.’
“But these conversations have to happen privately and people have to look at the larger picture, which is that Baltimore has one of only six or seven of these unique players in the league. The concept of moving on from that would change everything. Somehow, they’re going to need to get these discussions and negotiations back on track. It would be extremely bizarre for Lamar Jackson, a young quarterback who was the MVP of the league with a team that’s been very happy with him, and they’re going to trade him?
“I think the eventual playout is that cooler heads will prevail, they’ll work out a long-term deal for him and that Lamar Jackson will be playing quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens for years to come.”
William Rhoden, columnist for ESPN’s Andscape and a former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times.
Rhoden is the author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves and in March wrote a column explaining why Jackson’s fight for a guaranteed-contract goes beyond the field. He also addressed the issue last week on The Adam Jones Podcast.
Rhoden: “I’ve been intrigued by this whole Lamar thing and I look at it through the prism of players and their continuing fight for freedom. Like Curt Flood in 1969, this is the modern equivalent of his fight for free agency. Owners back then said that was going to be the hill they die on and they were determined to crush people. But eventually, they lost and free agency now is the rule of the day. Guaranteed NFL contracts will eventually be the same thing but there will be casualties, and I just hope that Lamar isn’t one of them.
“What I find fascinating is that, if you notice, the Ravens haven’t said anything. They haven’t said one word, which has to be frustrating for Lamar. They’re not giving his fire any oxygen. They’re not responding at all. John Harbaugh commented [last week] at the owner’s meetings when he was asked about Lamar’s trade request. They’re basically letting him stew in his own sauce.
“I’m sure he’s getting frustrated because they don’t have to trade him, they don’t have to do anything. I think where the collusion comes in, whether it’s active collusion or passive collusion, is that the owners have made it clear that they are not going to make any offers.
“How’s it going to turn out, I don’t know. Lamar might just decide to not show up for training camp and not play this year and just take it all the way out. Is that the best thing? If he plays under the current terms of the non-exclusive franchise tag, he’ll clearly be underpaid. When you look at what the Saints gave David Carr, what the Raiders gave Jimmy Garappolo and what the Seahawks gave Geno Smith, Lamar has to be like, ‘C’mon man, I’m better than these guys!’
“He will be underpaid and it depends on him, as to whether he will play under those terms and risk injury. And that’s what they’ve been using against him, that he’s been injured and that he doesn’t have an agent. I don’t care if Jesus was negotiating his contract, they were not going to give him a guaranteed contract.
“Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti laid it all out at last year’s owner’s meetings when he referenced the Deshaun Watson deal and said, ‘I’m not doing it.’
“What I want to see is, will the Cincinnati Bengals be as cavalier with Joe Burrow, will the Chargers be as cavalier with Justin Herbert when they say they want guaranteed contracts and slap the non-exclusive franchise tag on them? I don’t think so. That will be the test.
“Lamar is unpredictable in that no one knows what he’s going to do. He might hold out and put it out there that he’s not going to play and force the Ravens to go and get a quarterback from somewhere or commit full-time to backup, Tyler Huntley. But they know what life is like without Lamar and it’s not pretty.
“I’m not a multi-billionaire, so I don’t know what Bisciotti is thinking. But I’m sure at a certain point that he doesn’t give a damn. For him, owning the team is a little more than a hobby. The NFL prints money and the message to Lamar is if you aren’t in the seat, somebody else will be.
“Now if the Ravens play without him this year and they’re a disaster, that might be the only saving grace. Will Bisciotti care if they go 1-16 in Lamar’s absence and are a laughingstock, and if Deshaun Watson leads Cleveland to the AFC North title? Will that make an impact on the negotiations if the product on the field noticeably suffers? Will Bisciotti be embarrassed enough to rethink it if that happens?
“This is getting personal for Lamar. He might take the same deal that’s the Ravens are offering right now with another team. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, he was the face of the franchise, the youngest MVP ever, he was beloved in the locker room and a great presence in the community, an example that spoke to many in the city, especially the Black community.
“It’s just the exploitive nature of the NFL. They get everything out of you that they want, and when it comes time to negotiate that next lucrative deal, they’re like, ‘Nope!’ So this has to be personal with him and why he’s so upset. He might decide that he’s not going to play out of pride and principle. He’s 26 years old, he doesn’t have to play next season. He can spend the year letting his body fully heal while going back to school to finish his degree, let the Ravens experience life without his revolutionary talent, then come back to negotiate for the 2024 season.
“The only thing Lamar has is him. The only thing he can control is his body. He can’t control the Ravens or anything else. He can say, ‘I know my body’s value and I’m not going to play on the cheap. You’ve already used my injuries, which I sustained in service of you by the way, against me so F*** you.’
“I don’t think they think he’ll do that. They think, ‘Oh, this guy is not going to not play.’ He might fool them like who fools defenses on the field and say, ‘I’m not going to play for anything worth less than my true value.’
“If he doesn’t play, he won’t get paid at all this year. It just depends on whether he can take that hit or not, because that is a lot of money. "