Inside the paths Lamar Jackson's contract situation could take with the Ravens

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- On his first day back with the Baltimore Ravens on Tuesday, quarterback Lamar Jackson rolled to his right and flicked a 30-yard pass downfield to tight end Mark Andrews while on the run.

Jackson is a one-of-a-kind playmaker, and his contract situation is unprecedented. He is one of the few NFL players without agent representation, and he has yet to engage in negotiations on a multi-year extension despite the Ravens wanting to do so, according to team officials. Jackson's contract expires in March.

Though Jackson’s presence this week was expected at mandatory minicamp this week, what remains uncertain is his timeline for negotiating and signing what will be one of the league’s largest contracts.

Since Jackson was eligible for an extension 15 months ago, the highest average per-year deal for a quarterback has jumped from $45 million (Patrick Mahomes) to $50 million (Aaron Rodgers). The highest total guaranteed money has skyrocketed from $141.4 million (Mahomes) to $230 million (Deshaun Watson).

“He is a unique cat, and what are you going to do with a guy who wants to be unique?” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at the NFL league meetings in March. "You don't browbeat him into being a conformist.

“We’re taking him as we take him. We appreciate him. All I know is that his teammates freaking love him, and the front office loves him. It's like, 'You just keep doing you Lamar, and we'll make it work somehow.'"

There are several options for how this high-profile and unusual contract situation can play out, but the one common denominator is whichever path this narrative takes, the end result will have major ramifications.

The Ravens sign Jackson to a new deal before his contract expires

There’s not a lot of optimism Baltimore and Jackson can agree to an extension before the season. But there is hope, a source said, the sides can talk this week because Jackson is inside the Ravens facility for the first time this offseason.

Of the 20 quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 2011 and 2017, three signed extensions before the start of their fifth seasons: Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Blake Bortles. Then-Panthers GM Dave Gettleman said the deal with Newton took 11 days to negotiate, which shows that deals can come together quickly.

If history is any indication, the time to watch for a new deal is after the season. In 2013, Baltimore made quarterback Joe Flacco the highest-paid player in the NFL (six years, $120.6 million) three days before the deadline to use the franchise tag. The window for the tag can create urgency for both sides. The Ravens may not want to pay the steep one-year price for the exclusive franchise tag (projected to well exceed $30 million in 2023), and Jackson may not want to risk injury affecting his value by playing on what would essentially be one-year deals in 2023 and 2024 under the tag.

Baltimore puts franchise tag on Jackson, signs him to a long-term deal

If the sides can’t sign an extension by March 7, the Ravens would have to use the franchise tag to keep Jackson off the free-agent market.

It’s rare for the Ravens to use the tag. Baltimore has done it twice in the previous decade. It’s almost as rare to see NFL teams use the tag on quarterbacks. In the previous 10 offseasons, there have been five instances when a quarterback was given the tag: Drew Brees (2012), Kirk Cousins (2016 and 2017) and Dak Prescott (2020 and 2021). Brees and Prescott eventually signed long-term deals while Cousins hit the free-agent market and signed a landmark deal with the Minnesota Vikings.

By using the tag, Baltimore would have limited negotiating windows for an extension: between the end of this season and July 15, 2023; and between the end of next season and July 15, 2024.

The Ravens have a strong track record of signing players after applying the tag. Of the seven players tagged in their history, the Ravens reached long-term deals with five (cornerback Chris McAlister, linebacker Terrell Suggs, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, running back Ray Rice and kicker Justin Tucker). Only offensive lineman Wally Williams and outside linebacker Matthew Judon signed elsewhere after receiving the franchise tag.

Jackson hits free agency in 2025 after playing under the franchise tag for two years

This is the Cousins model. He played under the franchise tag for two seasons with Washington before becoming the most coveted free agent in years in 2018. Cousins signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract, which made him the NFL’s highest paid quarterback at the time.

When Cousins hit free agency, he had totaled 26 wins in six seasons and made one Pro Bowl. Now, imagine the market for Jackson, who has won 37 games in four seasons and was a unanimous NFL MVP.

This big payday route would come with a gamble. A devastating injury would likely hurt Jackson’s value, especially being a quarterback who relies as much on his mobility as his arm. Since he became the Ravens starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season, Jackson has been hit 709 times -- 99 more than any other quarterback during that span. Jackson had proven durable until the end of last season, when he was sidelined the last four games with a right ankle injury.

Bisciotti believes the market value for quarterbacks in 2025 will be $60 million per season. Jackson, though, pushed back this offseason against speculation he has his sights set on free agency in 2025 and is considering leaving the franchise.

In March, Jackson tweeted: “I love my Ravens. I don’t know who the hell [is] putting that false narrative out that I’m having thoughts about leaving. Stop trying [to] read my mind."

The Ravens trade Jackson

Let’s be clear: This is not an option the team has even hinted about. Ravens officials have repeatedly talked about how Jackson is their quarterback for the future.

But there would be a decision to make if Baltimore puts the franchise tag on Jackson next year, which would start the two-year clock before he reaches free agency. It’s difficult to believe the Ravens would watch Jackson sign elsewhere in 2025 and be content with getting a third-round compensatory pick in return. The Denver Broncos traded two first-round picks and two second-rounders to the Seattle Seahawks in March to acquire 33-year-old Russell Wilson, so it’s realistic to think Baltimore could get at least three first-round selections for Jackson, who is 25.

But trading Jackson is not on the radar, and team officials have been clear on that topic.

"He's a guy that when we think about the Ravens three, four, five years from now, we envision Lamar being a very, very big part of that team,” DeCosta said at the NFL combine in March, "and definitely a player that can help us win Super Bowls."