INDIANAPOLIS – If the Aaron Rodgers saga is the main course of the NFL offseason, then the Lamar Jackson mystery is its very sizable hors d’oeuvre.
And while Rodgers decides when to reveal whether – or perhaps where – he will be playing in 2023, the Baltimore Ravens have until March 7 to make their first significant decision about Jackson’s immediate future. That’s the deadline for teams to use the franchise tag on one of their pending free agents in order to hinder his ability to leave.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll get a deal done with Lamar before that happens,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said Wednesday at the annual scouting combine.
“But, sure, they’re big numbers. Knowing they’re big numbers, we’re prepared for that. And we’ve got four, five or six different plans based on what happens over the next 10 days.”
But what exactly are those contingencies, and what’s the viability of each? Let’s dig into the options the Ravens are assessing:
Exclusive franchise tag
Its one-year tender for a quarterback is worth approximately $45 million, commensurate with what the league’s top passers earn in average annual compensation. It would also prevent Jackson, who represents himself, from negotiating with other teams while sending a message – both financially and from a restrictive standpoint – that the Ravens are committed to a future with him. It also allows both sides four more months to reach an extension.
DeCosta said Wednesday there’s “no doubt” Jackson deserves to be paid in the upper tier of NFL QBs.
And yet the exclusive tag would put the Ravens – currently projected to have $24.3 million to spend this year, per OverTheCap – into a $20+ million deficit that would necessitate either restructuring of other players’ contracts or cutting them outright.
Standard franchise tag
It’s worth significantly less than the exclusive version – $32.4 million – and would also enable Jackson to negotiate with other teams. If he signed an offer from another club, the Ravens could subsequently match it or let Jackson go but get two first-round picks from his new team as compensation. Yet it’s worth wondering how Jackson would feel about this tag’s diminished value and the fact that Baltimore would essentially be telling him to find a better arrangement rather than keeping negotiations in house.
“It’s difficult, it’s challenging,” DeCosta said of negotiating with someone who doesn’t have an agent.
“You’re dealing with a player, so of course it’s different. It’s a personal relationship. You’re with that guy every single day, and you have a great appreciation for who he is and what he does and, yeah, so it is challenging.”
Even though Jackson’s five-year rookie contract will officially expire in two weeks, the Ravens can still deal him – by tagging him first. Franchised players can be swapped for whatever compensation two parties can consent upon – meaning more or less than the two first-rounders that would switch hands if an outside offer wasn’t matched – though Jackson would have to consummate any such agreement by actually signing the tag, which would surely require the framework of his next contract being in place with a new team.
The Ravens are certainly signaling this is the outcome they want with Jackson, and sooner than later. Owner Steve Bisciotti vented last year about how their talks would be complicated by the five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million deal the AFC North rival Cleveland Browns awarded quarterback Deshaun Watson after acquiring him, and that appears to have proved true.
Still, signing Jackson before March 7, for whatever amount it costs, would mean Baltimore could structure his deal with more favorable cap numbers in the next few years and leave room for other free agents. Watson’s cap hit was less than $10 million in 2022, and his deal could be restructured this year in hopes that an expanding salary cap will better accommodate it in future seasons.
Publicly, the Ravens seem to be saying all the right things about their desire to retain Jackson. And why not? He’s been the league’s MVP, and Baltimore has experienced significant (regular-season) success in his five seasons, including four playoff trips.
“You can’t win in this league without a strong quarterback,” said DeCosta. “I mean, 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.
“Living in a world without a quarterback is a bad world to live in.”
And a likely outcome for the Ravens if Jackson leaves the fold, especially since they’re not scheduled to pick until the 22nd spot in the draft. And Baltimore seems an unlikely destination for a player like Rodgers given how the offense has been customized for Jackson over the years.
Yet that attack will be evolving under newly hired coordinator Todd Monken, though coach John Harbaugh believes his hiring is a sign of the organization’s devotion to Jackson and his continued development.
Asked if he’s imagined a post-Jackson scenario, Harbaugh said: “Not very much. As little as possible, for sure. Our plans are for Lamar.”
Neither he nor DeCosta took issue with Jackson’s absence from the Ravens’ wild-card loss at Cincinnati, Harbaugh – who texts frequently with the quarterback – believing Jackson was simply trying to give himself the best opportunity to play the following week even though he didn’t appear after Week 14 in either of the past two seasons due to injuries.
“It’s just what it is, part of the business,” Harbaugh said of the ongoing impasse. “I’m really hopeful and excited – fervently hopeful and can’t wait for it to get done.
“We want Lamar, and Lamar wants to be a Raven. And, in the end, that’s gonna work itself out in my mind. … I’ve always been confident that it’s gonna get worked out, and I still believe that.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lamar Jackson’s future: Trade? Ravens megadeal? Or ugly tag standoff?