Jones: With Lamar Jackson, NFL owners show it’s control they care about the most – The Athletic

Yes, and no.

A deafening silence surrounds the future of one of the best young NFL quarterbacks. But out of that silence blares a message that’s loud and clear.

We’re one week into free agency, and it has been two weeks since the Baltimore Ravens used the franchise tag on Lamar Jackson to retain his rights. The use of the non-exclusive tag basically signaled that the Ravens are open for business. Yet no one is burning up the phone lines. No team is clamoring for the services of a generational talent who, although just 26, has already garnered a rare unanimous MVP selection, 10 NFL records and 13 other team records.

All Jackson has done since taking over as Baltimore’s starter halfway through his rookie season in 2018 is put the Ravens on his back and make them relevant. So, in a league starved for elite quarterback play, the lack of even a few exploratory conversations for a player of Jackson’s caliber is unfathomable.

The owners for all of the quarterback-needy teams were quick to ensure denials of interest in Jackson were leaked shortly after the news of his franchise tag designation broke.

They have spoken, and quite authoritatively. Their message is clear.

In pro football, winning trumps all. Teams will turn a blind eye to the gravest of transgressions. They’ll show mercy for any disgraced player if he has the redeeming quality of increasing a team’s chances of winning the Lombardi Trophy. But here, we’re receiving another reminder that the only thing more important to owners than winning is control.

That’s why rather than whipping out the checkbook and rewarding Jackson for almost single-handedly making Baltimore a contender, the Ravens suddenly prefer frugality. It’s why rather than capitalizing on Baltimore’s miscalculation and attempting to pry away such a transformational player, other owners are content to sit this one out.

There will be no more resetting of the quarterback market with staggering, long-term, fully guaranteed contracts. Not on their watch. That’s the hard stance being taken.

Owners were upset when the Cleveland Browns awarded the controversial Deshaun Watson a record $230 million guaranteed contract (the first of its kind) to outbid the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers. And they desperately want to avoid a repeat.

After Watson’s signing, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti publicly called the deal bad for business because it would “make negotiations harder with others.”

Bisciotti knew he had his own quarterback contract to worry about in the coming year.

Now, that time has come, and he and the face of his franchise remain locked in a standoff because Jackson — well aware of the market value, his capabilities and importance to the Ravens — wants Watson-like money. Or he at the very least wants assurances that his team is fully and financially committed to him, through thick and thin.

Jackson believed that if not the Ravens, some team would value him appropriately. But the wait for such a suitor continues and seems likely to drag on for some time. Recently, a representative for Jackson reached out to multiple teams in an effort to spark negotiations aimed at a possible offer sheet, which was first reported by Pro Football Talk and confirmed by a league source who had been briefed on the situation. But all remains quiet.

Unlike their counterparts in other professional leagues, NFL owners have always resisted the idea of fully guaranteed contracts. The Browns were beyond desperate. But traditionally, in an attempt to save money and also to ensure their players remain beholden to the franchise, NFL owners have opted for deals that require players to meet certain incentives to reach their long-term maximum earning potential. Out clauses in contracts also make players more expendable, so teams can more easily discard the aging, beaten and broken or underperforming. Deals like Watson’s, however, mean teams remain on the hook for the life of the contract. Such agreements also further empower players, and that’s exactly what owners don’t want.

Bisciotti knows full well how much Jackson means to the Ravens. They went 3-5 and were anemic on offense in games started by Tyler Huntley the past two seasons. But the idea of forking over this much money and control is apparently just too massive a horse pill to swallow. It’s a terrifying thought for the owners, bending to the demands of this supremely gifted 26-year-old Black man, who has already snubbed his nose at conventionalism and resisted the idea of hiring an agent because he believes he can negotiate his contract terms on his own.

And just as frightening is the knowledge that if the Ravens do yield to Jackson, they open the floodgates for others to make similar contract demands, because Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts are next in line for massive pay days.

Bisciotti doesn’t want to be that guy. His fellow owners don’t want that, either. And that’s why as March nears its end, there’s no gaggle of teams jockeying for Jackson’s services.

Ask around, and it’s hard to find anyone associated with the NFL — current and former players, talent evaluators of varying ranks, union officials — who doesn’t suspect collusion by the owners; a wink-and-nod agreement to hold the line and resist the demands for any more of those Watson-like contracts.

The lack of progress made in the last year toward a deal between Baltimore and Jackson had already sparked suspicions. But then all the leaks of teams having no interest in even exploring trade possibilities really set off the alarms.

Kirk Cousins was the first NFL quarterback, in 2018, to sign a fully guaranteed multiyear deal. As DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, wrote in a column published on the union’s website last week, “This time, (the owners) are criminally gaming the game itself.

“We are all staring at the same answer to the obvious questions. Why did Cousins and Watson get fully guaranteed contracts while others didn’t? Or to be more specific, why have the Baltimore Ravens and other teams publicly (at least initially) made such a point to say they are not going to compensate Lamar Jackson with a fully guaranteed contract like Cousins’ or Watson’s? Let’s be clear, in my nearly 15-year career as executive director, I have never witnessed teams being so quick to publicly announce their lack of interest in an MVP quarterback, who is in his prime and who is also going to get an injury guarantee, regardless of his contract.”

The owners will of course deny every collusion accusation leveled against them. And that’s why we hear whispers/excuses of why Jackson doesn’t deserve such a pay day.

• The injury history (Jackson missed five games down the stretch in each of the last two seasons).

• The lack of playoff success (Jackson is 1-3 in the postseason).

• The lack of an agent, to ensure more reasonable and emotion-free negotiations.

But the reasons don’t add up.

In the last year, Baltimore linebacker Roquan Smith and Houston left tackle Laremy Tunsil have both negotiated market-resetting deals on their own.

And injury history didn’t hurt the earning potential of either Watson or Kyler Murray, who last season signed a $230 million deal with $160 million guaranteed. A lack of playoff success didn’t hurt Watson (1-2) or Murray (0-1), either.

Jackson boasts a 45-16 record in five seasons, with 101 touchdown passes and just 38 interceptions on a 64.3 percent completion rate. He also has rushed for 24 touchdowns in 70 games. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season.

Watson went 28-25 in four seasons with Houston. Otherwise, his numbers (104 passing touchdowns, 36 interceptions on a 67 percent completion percentage) aren’t all that different from Jackson’s. He also did not play in 2021 after trying to leverage his way out of Houston and while also facing more than two-dozen allegations of sexual assault and/or misconduct.

So if Watson could still draw rabid attention from multiple teams and eventually land such a dizzying deal, why can’t Jackson, who has a stellar off-field record? Why haven’t even a few teams made inquiries about what it would take to get a deal done?

Those collusion claims don’t sound so crazy, do they?

Jackson’s frustrations are understandable when you consider all of those elements at play. The Ravens’ dealings thus far haven’t come anywhere close to what Watson got from Cleveland. And to hear Jackson tell it — or to at least piece together the breadcrumbs he has dropped in a few limited tweets, because he hasn’t actually done any interviews on the matter — Baltimore’s offers haven’t resembled the kind you would expect from an organization that respected and valued its star quarterback.

The Ravens’ moves smell like those executed by management that knew ahead of time it would not face competition.

The disrespect is real. The Ravens couldn’t even bring themselves to pay Jackson like a true franchise cornerstone for one year. Jackson is in line to earn $32.4 million on the non-exclusive tag. That’s significantly less than he could have earned if the Ravens placed the exclusive tag on him ($45 million salary for 2023).

Jackson last week on Twitter seemed to suggest he had, at one point, been offered $133 million guaranteed over three years by the Ravens. As he insinuated in the same tweet, he didn’t need an agent to know not to accept a deal on which the average annual salary was less than that of Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Murray and Watson, among others.

Top QB annual salaries (per Over the Cap)
Player Team Age Total value AVG/Year Total guaranteed

And so, Jackson seems content to continue to bet on himself.

The Ravens and their quarterback could return to the negotiating table. The franchise tag doesn’t lock in for the season until July 17.

Members of rival front offices believe that even if the Ravens remain opposed to awarding Jackson a long-term deal, a reasonable offer would be something in the range of three years, $144 million fully guaranteed. That would ensure Jackson an average annual salary of $48 million. That would be just below what Rodgers and Wilson earn, but a worthy number given Jackson’s impact, and more than what Murray, Watson, Mahomes and Josh Allen ($43 million) make per year. Jackson also would find himself in the favorable position of being able to hit free agency again before he turns 30.

If the Ravens maintain their current stance, though, the stalemate could persist. And if Jackson continues to insist on fully guaranteed deals, he could eventually follow the script used by another quarterback. Cousins played on the franchise tag in both 2016 and 2017 for Washington before signing with Minnesota in free agency in 2018 on a fully guaranteed deal. Cousins has since signed two additional extensions — both also fully guaranteed.

Eventually, some team will cave and give Jackson what he wants.

That’s a long-game type of hardball. But given the way the Ravens have handled this situation thus far — displaying a stubbornness and commitment to maintaining control rather than winning and rewarding excellence — can you really blame the quarterback-turned-businessman?

(Photo: Lamar Jackson: Greg Fiume / Getty Images)

This content was originally published here.

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