Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta held his season-ending news conference Feb. 4, and the biggest takeaway from his roughly 45-minute session was that the timing of any contract extension for quarterback Lamar Jackson is pretty much up to Jackson.
“I would say that we’re working at Lamar’s pace,” DeCosta said. “He’s comfortable where we are right now. I think he feels we have a lot of unfinished business, [and] he has a lot of unfinished business.”
DeCosta was referring to the product on the field after the Ravens went 8-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in Jackson’s four-year career, but there’s no unfinished business more important to Jackson and the Ravens than his contract.
Jackson is entering the final year of his rookie deal after the Ravens picked up his fifth-year option for the 2022 season for roughly $23 million, and Jackson’s contract status will be one of the dominant storylines until any extension is finalized.
DeCosta and Jackson have both professed interest in such a deal. Last year, DeCosta expressed optimism that an extension would happen before Jackson began his final season under contract, but at his news conference last week, he sounded less certain of that.
DeCosta acknowledged the unusual nature of the negotiating process because Jackson has no agent, but he said he and Jackson have had “five of six conversations” throughout the past year regarding the contract.
“Lamar knows that he can come up to me to see me at any point,” DeCosta said. “He can call me at any point. We actually talked this week. He can text me at any point. We will operate based on his urgency.”
Here are some pros and cons of both sides in getting a deal done sooner vs. later:
The team’s reasons for getting a deal done soon:
With an extension in place, the Ravens would have their franchise quarterback and former league MVP under contract for the foreseeable future, and depending on how it is structured, that should create significant cap savings this season. And the cost is likely to only go up.
Jackson missed five games this past season — one because of illness and the final four because of a bone bruise in his foot — and put up the worst numbers of his career. Mentioned as an MVP candidate early in the season as the Ravens bolted to a 5-1 start, Jackson finished with a career high in interceptions (13) and sacks (38). His passer rating of 87.0 ranked 23rd among qualified quarterbacks.
Still, DeCosta said Jackson’s performance this year would have no bearing on the team’s perception of his value.
“Nothing has changed, OK?” DeCosta said. “Lamar is a Pro Bowl quarterback. He played some brilliant football this year, and we had some struggles. … I think there’s a lot of upside with our offense. Lamar is a big part of that. He’s the right person to do it. He’s a leader. He’s beloved. He’s a phenomenally talented player, and he makes us better.”
It’s hard to dispute that. Since Jackson became the starter midway through the 2018 season, the Ravens are 37-12 in the regular season when he has played and 2-5 in games he has missed.
An extension with Jackson would almost surely drop this year’s cap hit significantly, giving the Ravens more financial flexibility to address other areas of concern on the roster, of which there are many.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who was selected No. 7 overall in Jackson’s 2018 draft class, signed a six-year, $258 million extension that will cost the Bills roughly $16 million against the cap in 2022 instead of the $23 million cost of the fifth-year option. (His cap number jumps to $39 million in 2023 and $41 million in 2024, according to Spotrac.com, which tracks player contracts.)
Any deal the Ravens make with Jackson — and Allen’s is sure to come up as a comparison — should similarly reduce the cap for the 2022 season.
In addition, getting a deal done now would avoid some of the acrimony that can build between a player and organization when negotiations drag on. The fact that there is no agent to act as a buffer could complicate things.
Lamar Jackson’s reasons for getting a deal done soon:
For starters, a lot of zeroes.
Jackson is set to make $23 million this coming season, but any new contract is sure to be the richest in franchise history and give Jackson wealth for generations. It will include tens of millions in guaranteed money (Allen’s deal has $150 million guaranteed), and in a league in which a career can end or be dramatically altered on every snap, that’s money in the bank.
And although DeCosta suggested Jackson’s performance this year did not sway the team’s belief in his perceived value, he is two seasons removed from his MVP season, and his stock didn’t rise this year. Meanwhile, Joe Burrow has the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl, and Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers has joined Burrow, Allen, Jackson and Patrick Mahomes in any discussion of young, elite quarterbacks.
Jackson’s argument to be paid among the top two or three quarterbacks begins to lose footing if other young quarterbacks prove to be more productive.
Plus, Jackson, head coach John Harbaugh and teammates would not have to deal with questions about the contract, which are sure to come if an extension doesn’t happen, and that could become a distraction if uncertainty lingers.
Jackson is just 25 years old — a month younger than Burrow — and depending on the terms of the deal, he could line up for another big free agency payday by age 30.
The team’s reasons for waiting:
Is DeCosta ready to commit $200 million or more to Jackson coming off his least productive year as a pro? Despite his public pronouncements, do DeCosta and owner Steve Bisciotti believe that Jackson remains “an ascending player,” Bisciotti’s term used in the past when offering big-ticket extensions?
DeCosta said that paying Jackson $23 million on the fifth-year option isn’t unreasonable, and he noted that a larger overall salary cap for 2022 will cushion some of that blow.
“We can certainly take on that amount,” DeCosta said. “Based on who Lamar is and what he has to offer, that’s not a huge ticket for a quarterback of that ability and that personality and what he brings to the table for the team.”
The Ravens also know they have the option of using the franchise tag on Jackson in 2023 and even in 2024 if they choose. Granted, that won’t be cheap: The franchise tag for a quarterback — arrived by taking the average of the top five contracts at the position — would cost about $28.5 million this year, according to overthecap.com, and will only go up from there.
The Ravens could expect to pay $30 million to tag Jackson in 2023, and a second tag could cost $40 million. One hundred percent of that would count against that year’s cap, leaving the Ravens little financial flexibility for other needs.
Still, using Allen’s extension as a guide, the Ravens can expect to fork over well more than $70 million in guaranteed money in any long-term deal.
Jackson’s reasons for waiting:
First, as DeCosta suggested, Jackson could be singularly focused on the 2022 season after the most frustrating season of his career.
Perhaps more important, the salary cap should only rise in the coming years, giving teams more money to spend.
Jackson and the Ravens should be well positioned to rebound from their 8-9 season. They have nine picks in the first four rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft, and DeCosta said he expects the Ravens can grab nine players ranked in their top 80 to fortify the roster.
They figure to have several starters who missed most or all of the 2021 season back on the field, making the roster significantly stronger. And by virtue of their Week 17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens finished fourth in the AFC North and will face a fourth-place schedule in 2022.
After having the second-toughest strength of schedule in 2021, they are set to face the 23rd toughest in 2022. Granted, strength of schedule has a way of morphing quickly as a season unfolds, but the ingredients are there for the Ravens to bounce back, and Jackson could be the biggest beneficiary if he leads the Ravens on another playoff run.
Joe Flacco bet on himself before the Ravens Super Bowl season in 2012, opting against a new deal until after that season. Then he had a Super Bowl MVP trophy to bring to negotiations. There’s no guarantee Jackson will lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2022, but he is uber-competitive, confident and should have no issue betting on himself.
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