OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- A day after the Ravens’ campaign ended with a 24-17 wild-card loss at the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson kicked off an offseason of uncertainty by sharing a screenshot of a cryptic quote of unknown origin on Instagram.
“When you have something good, you don’t play with it,” the quote began. “You don’t take chances losing it. You don’t neglect it. When you have something good, you pour into it. You appreciate it. Because when you take care of something good, that good thing takes care of you too.”
It’s this type of what-does-he-mean-by-that post that has fueled speculation about Jackson’s future in Baltimore. What’s clear is there are only three ways for this to end: sign Jackson -- who does not have an agent -- to a long-term deal; put the franchise tag on him; or trade him, which is a scenario that would’ve been unthinkable a few months ago.
Now that their season is over, the Ravens and Jackson can restart negotiations on a new deal. It’s been over four months since the Ravens announced they were unable to come to an agreement by the start of the regular season, which was Jackson’s self-imposed deadline, and there’s been drama building around the stalemate.
“Having talked to Lamar and people inside that organization, what I’m saying is the relationship is salvageable,” said Robert Griffin III, Jackson’s former backup with the Ravens, on ESPN’s "Monday Night Countdown."
How this situation unfolds will dominate the most critical offseason in Ravens history.
Option 1: Long-term deal
This is thought to be the least likely result, considering the sides have been in contract talks for two years. Baltimore and Jackson have two months to get a deal done before the Ravens would apply the franchise tag to keep him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
If the Ravens tag Jackson, the sides have until an NFL-mandated deadline of July 15 to get an extension completed. If there is no deal in place by the middle of July, Jackson would have to play the season under the tag.
Before contract talks were postponed, sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter that Jackson turned down the Ravens’ five-year extension worth $250 million, with $133 million guaranteed at signing. That would have made Jackson the second-highest paid quarterback in terms of average per year and guaranteed money at signing.
In March, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti indicated Watson’s record deal would make it more difficult in future contract talks with quarterbacks, before adding, "But it doesn't necessarily mean that we have to play that game, you know? We shall see.”
A deal would allow the Ravens to better upgrade the supporting cast around Jackson. His salary-cap hit on a long-term contract would likely range from $20 million to $30 million in the first year. That would be at least $15 million less than the exclusive franchise tag, which could be used on signing free agents, like a much-needed wide receiver.
But there doesn’t appear to be much hope of a long-term deal happening unless the Ravens meet Jackson’s demand for a fully guaranteed contract or Jackson backs off that stance.
Option 2: Franchise tag
This is considered the most likely result, because Baltimore won’t let Jackson hit free agency. The window to use the tag is Feb. 21 to March 7, and Baltimore can take two routes with the tag: non-exclusive or exclusive.
The non-exclusive tag is less expensive but reduces a team’s negotiating power because it allows Jackson to engage in contract talks with other teams. If Jackson signs an offer sheet with another team, the Ravens would have the right to match the offer or take two first-round picks as compensation.
The non-exclusive tag is more cap-friendly at $30 million to $35 million, but it’s probably not feasible if Baltimore believes it can get more than two first-round picks for Jackson.
It’s expected the Ravens would use the exclusive tag, which has a higher price tag but allows Baltimore to control trade talks. This is what happened last offseason with wide receiver Davante Adams, who was tagged by the Green Bay Packers then dealt to the Las Vegas Raiders 10 days later. And like what happened with Adams, the Ravens would need Jackson to sign his tender before trading him because a team can’t deal a player who isn’t under contract. So, Jackson has a say in where he will go because he can veto any trade by refusing to sign his franchise tender.
The exclusive tag is steep -- projected at $45 million for Jackson -- but the Ravens can set their asking price if teams are interested in acquiring Jackson and Baltimore is interested in dealing him. The issue for the Ravens is they have a little over $40 million in salary-cap space, and Baltimore needs to be under the cap at the start of the new league year (March 15).
In order to get Jackson’s exclusive tag under the cap, Baltimore would be forced to create space by releasing or negotiating pay cuts with the likes of defensive end Calais Campbell ($7 million in cap savings if cut), running back Gus Edwards ($4.4 million) and safety Chuck Clark ($3.6 million). The Ravens would still have little cap room to address holes on the roster with Jackson on the exclusive tag.
By using the tag, the Ravens might see less of Jackson than even last offseason. Jackson only reported to mandatory minicamp in June last year, missing the voluntary workouts in May and June for the first time in his five-year career. If Jackson doesn’t sign the franchise tender this year, he is technically not under contract and is not required to attend any offseason practices in the spring or training camp. Most players eventually play under the tag, but then-Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season to protest the tag.
It’s rare for teams to use the tag on a franchise quarterback. In the previous 10 offseasons, only two have been given the tag: Kirk Cousins (2016 and 2017), who was with Washington at the time, and the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott (2020 and 2021), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Prescott eventually signed a long-term extension with the Cowboys, while Cousins hit free agency and signed a landmark deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
Option 3: Trade
The mere suggestion of trading Jackson would have raised eyebrows before the season.
In March, before Watson’s deal, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said Jackson was a player who could help Baltimore win multiple Super Bowls. In September, coach John Harbaugh said, “He’s going to be playing quarterback here for a long time.”
But Jackson failed to finish the season for a second straight year because of injuries. He has been sidelined for 10 of Baltimore’s past 22 games (including playoffs).
And if the Ravens are convinced they can’t reach a deal with Jackson, they would have to consider trading him either this offseason or next. It’s difficult to believe Baltimore would let Jackson play the next two seasons under the tag, hit free agency in 2025 and be content with getting a third-round compensatory pick in return.
It’s unknown how much draft capital Baltimore could accrue by dealing Jackson. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks received two first-round picks and two second-rounders from the Denver Broncos for then-33-year-old Russell Wilson. The market value should be much higher for Jackson, who turned 26 earlier this month.
Houston traded Watson and a 2024 sixth-round pick to the Browns in exchange for first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024; a third-round pick in 2022; and a fourth-round pick in 2024.
For what it’s worth, neither the Broncos nor the Browns got a positive return on investment in the first year after their huge QB deals. Wilson struggled all season -- his 37.0 QBR ranked 27th -- while the Broncos won just five games and fired first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett. Watson played just six games after serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the NFL, on massage therapists. He threw seven touchdowns and five interceptions and finished with a 38.3 QBR.
Trading Jackson would represent an unprecedented move in the NFL. There have been nine trades involving NFL MVP quarterbacks -- from Roman Gabriel in 1969 to Matt Ryan last season -- and none was dealt when under the age of 30.
Jackson’s teammates aren’t receptive to seeing him go elsewhere this offseason.
“All I know is that I want Lamar to be playing here with me as long as I’m playing,” Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley said. "I have full faith that they’re going to work something out.”