What will Ravens do about Lamar Jackson’s contract?
When Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson refused to accept the team’s best offer before the season began because it didn’t consist of a five-year full guarantee (like Deshaun Watson’s contract), it appeared likely that the Ravens would apply the exclusive franchise tag to Jackson for 2023. With the Ravens one loss away from embarking on their offseason, is that still the case?
It may not be.
The Ravens may decide that the time has come to let Lamar get a glimpse of the offers other teams would (or wouldn’t) make, with the thinking being that (like the Ravens) no one else would give him a five-year, fully-guaranteed contract. That could happen in three different ways.
First, the Ravens could apply the non-exclusive tag. It would be significantly cheaper than the exclusive tag, and it would give teams the ability to negotiate with Jackson and to sign him to an offer sheet. However, the team that ultimately signs Jackson would have to be willing to give up a pair of first-round picks if/when the Ravens don’t match the offer Jackson accepts. It also could open the door to a trade agreement with the Ravens for something less than two first-round picks.
Any transaction under the non-exclusive tag would depend on Jackson and a new team negotiating a deal that he finds acceptable. That becomes harder to do if the new team would also have to give the Ravens a package that presumably would include at least one first-round pick.
Second, the Ravens could simply let Jackson become a free agent, unrestricted and unlimited. At that point, Jackson would have to try to navigate the various available options, leveraging one team against the other until someone (ideally) offers him a five-year, fully-guaranteed contract. He’d quite possibly learn very quickly that no one will give him that kind of a contract. He’d also possibly learn that, of all available offers, the deal the Ravens are willing to sign remains the most fair and appropriate -- assuming the Ravens would still offer what they offered before the season began.
Third, the Ravens could apply the transition tag to Jackson. Even cheaper than the non-exclusive franchise tag, the transition tag could be the best middle ground between letting Jackson hit the open market and hampering his prospects with the compensation required by the franchise tag. The Ravens would have the right to match the offer sheet Lamar signs with a new team. It would then be incumbent on Jackson to go negotiate an acceptable deal.
What would someone else offer? Who would break ranks like the Browns did with a five-year, fully-guaranteed contract? Would anyone at this point, especially after Jackson finishing two straight seasons unable to play due to injury?
However it plays out, Jackson would find out what’s out there. Or what isn’t out there. And the Ravens would have a chance to match the best offer Jackson finds elsewhere.
That approach entails risk that Jackson and a new team would craft an offer sheet the Ravens wouldn’t or couldn’t match. But if Jackson, without an agent, can’t close a deal to stay in Baltimore, would he be able to finalize an offer sheet specifically aimed at getting the Ravens to decline to match? Or would he simply insist on a five-year, fully-guaranteed offer, entertaining no discussions for anything other than that?
The reality for the Ravens is that every option at this point entails risk. At some point in the coming weeks, the team will have to make a strategic decision about the collection of risks it’s most willing to assume, and to choose accordingly -- with an eye at all times toward giving Jackson a chance to see that there’s no one willing to give Jackson the kind of guarantees that the Ravens decline to provide.