Sports

The NFL’s Highest-Stakes Game Is Reaching Its Breaking Point

Lamar Jackson’s contract negotiations with the Ravens will shape the NFL for years.

Lamar looks on from the sidelines and smiles
Jackson during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at M&T Bank Stadium on Aug. 11, in Baltimore. Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Players like Lamar Jackson do not reach free agency. In one part, that is because the NFL lacks other players like Jackson, a star whose combination of open-field electricity and a big right arm make him one of one. In another part, it is because quarterbacks with similar statures in the sport have become so valuable that if a team has one, there is no chance it will be wild enough to let him walk out the door. It isn’t that great QBs never change teams. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning recently made late-career moves to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos. But QBs in their prime don’t move in this fashion today. The 17 biggest QB contracts in the league today were all signed under circumstances other than free agency. No. 18 is Kirk Cousins, whose previous contract with the Minnesota Vikings for three years and $84 million, signed in 2018, was the main recent exception to this rule.

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Cousins is not in Jackson’s weight class. The closest thing this century to “Lamar Jackson, free agent” would be Drew Brees’ move from the San Diego Chargers to the New Orleans Saints in 2006. Brees, 26, signed a six-year deal, then a few more after that, and became a legend in Louisiana. He is a good illustration of why it is not usually a good idea to let a 20-something star quarterback go anywhere else.

Yet here we are. Jackson, who started his career in 2018, is in the last year of his rookie contract. He has been negotiating on and off with the Baltimore Ravens for at least a year or so, and he has indicated somewhat cryptically that he has a Week 1 deadline before he goes into season mode and stops negotiating. That is Sept. 11. Talks between a QB like Jackson and his team do not often get this far down the road without a resolution. The team wants to ensure it doesn’t lose a potential generational talent. The player, who puts his body on the line every time he puts on pads, wants the ink dry before something has a chance to go awry. An element of football culture comes into play, too: Negotiations are “distractions,” hence the concept of a Week 1 deadline. For all of these reasons, the Ravens and Jackson should soon hash out their differences. If they don’t, it’ll reshape the AFC for years to come. It’ll also be the first case study in a long time of what happens when an elite quarterback resolves to really test the free market.

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Jackson wants a big contract, and the only doubt is whether it will be a mega-megadeal or a mega-mega-megadeal. He has a good case for one. The Ravens have offered Jackson more than the Arizona Cardinals gave Kyler Murray, according to Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, and Murray got a deal worth up to $230.5 million that essentially guarantees him at least $160 million. Jackson won a league MVP in 2019 and has been a more effective NFL QB than Murray overall, so that much makes sense. It is true that Jackson has been less good and less healthy the past two years than he was during his 2019 peak. But it is also true that he is 25 and still has a big career in front of him. Jackson would probably like to get something closer to the fully guaranteed (and unbelievably cynical) $230 million deal that the Cleveland Browns just gave to Deshaun Watson, which Glazer noted has complicated the Jackson negotiation. Various teams are likely annoyed about Watson’s deal, not because of the dozens of sexual misconduct allegations that the Browns waved away but because of its huge guarantees. The Ravens, mindful of their need to put a good team around the QB in a salary-capped world, would like to limit the damage.

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Beyond the rareness of it all, two things make the dance between Jackson and the Ravens fascinating. One is Jackson’s uniqueness. He is a supernova when he is on the field, which is most of the time, and he has a four-year body of work of being a pretty durable quarterback. He missed one game in 2019, when the Ravens had already secured their playoff seeding and rested him in the last week of the regular season. He missed one more with COVID in 2020. He missed five games in 2021, one due to illness and four because of an ankle problem.

It does not seem like Jackson is a fragile player. He has taken a hundred more hits than any other QB since he became the starter in 2018, per ESPN, the byproduct of the Ravens’ designed run calls and his tendency to freelance when he sees a running lane. And he was holding up just fine until a difficult month at the end of last season. Jackson faced durability skeptics when he entered the league, and injury fears probably contributed at least a touch to his being available for the Ravens with the last pick of the first round. He has already disproved any doubt that he could put together a great NFL career while absorbing so many hits to a relatively slight frame. (I do mean “relatively.” Jackson looks skinny but packs a heavy punch when he carries the ball between the tackles.) The Ravens have not cast any aspersions in public.

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But the issue is still there: No team is thrilled, in a vacuum, about a nine-figure investment taking hits from 240- to 300-pound dudes a dozen-plus times every Sunday. To what extent has that kept the Ravens’ number and Jackson’s number apart? I don’t know, but I do not think it’s a complete coincidence that the most down-to-the-wire negotiation of this sort in years involves the NFL’s most prolific running QB since Michael Vick.

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The other quirk in these discussions is that Jackson is bucking NFL norms and representing himself, as he’s done for his entire career. He did not hire an agent when he was a draft prospect, and both some players and establishment executive types warned of the consequences then. The league’s collective bargaining with the NFL Players Association creates a narrow structure for rookie contracts, but no such structure exists for a player’s second deal. Jackson seems to have done fine, but the risk is greater now.

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It takes a certain confidence to represent yourself against an NFL front office, which employs a small army of salary cap specialists and contract negotiators and lawyers whose job in life is to get the best deals from the team’s perspective. This, obviously, can be dangerous, no matter how attuned a player is to his own value. There is a reason that the NFLPA, like every other pro sports union, requires agents to go through a rigid certification process.  Jackson is betting on himself not just as the talent but as his own buffer. There’s no agent to tap him on the shoulder and ask him to soften his stance.

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Maybe Jackson does not need one. Agents are dealmakers. They often have long client lists. They rely on maintaining amicable relationships with all 32 franchises. They have other deals to negotiate. Their commission structure means that a dollar gained for a player is less than that for the agent. The sausage gets made efficiently. Jackson has no such constraints. He’s in this thing for himself and his family. If the Ravens are quietly furious about his stance in their talks, it’s not like they can make his life difficult in the way they might do to an agent who frustrated them. What are they going to do? Let him walk?

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Probably not. The Ravens and Jackson are likely to make a deal. Even if they don’t, he could stay in Baltimore for the near future, via the lucrative but short-term franchise tag that teams can slap on players without contracts. The Ravens could even do that multiple times, but they probably wouldn’t. It gets expensive quickly, and the lack of long-term commitment on either side eventually makes it hard to do business in a people industry. (Washington put Cousins on the franchise tag twice before he left for Minnesota, and that was rare.) The Ravens are either going to lose Jackson within a year or two or make him an offer he deems acceptable. Jackson, one way or another, is poised to get a lot of money, and the remaining questions are about degrees of magnitude and the contract structure.

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The Ravens, who know what it’s like to have a QB who is pretty good but not at the top of the sport, have good reason to move heaven and earth to figure this out. Jackson is a big gun in a league that requires one. They share the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, who have Joe Burrow. They share it with the Browns, who cannot win enough to justify their embarrassing Watson decision but will probably win a lot anyway. And they share it with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who may have just found their own suitable QB of the future in first-round pick Kenny Pickett. Jackson is the most accomplished of any of these players and the biggest reason to believe in the Ravens over the next five years. Overpaying him, even by more than a little, seems like less of a risk than sliding down the divisional QB pecking order. Jackson is the party in this negotiation who is acting outside of convention, but I don’t think he’s the one taking on the most risk.

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