A strange trend developed Tuesday in the hours immediately after the Ravens placed non-exclusive franchise tag quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Instead of reports trumpeting the teams that could come up with offers for one of the NFL’s most amazing talents, each news story seemed to reveal another franchise that would not follow jackson.
Atlanta Falcons, Washington Commanders, Carolina Panthers — all believed to be hungry for a franchise quarterback, all quickly ruled out by leaks to various reporters.
Current and former players cried foul, with the term collusion taking center stage in a hurry. “Why are all these teams so hyped on Lamar Jackson, a seasoned MVP winner at the most important position in the entire NFL?” recently retired defensive superstar JJ Watt asked on Twitter. “What am I missing here?”
By placing the non-exclusive tag, worth about $32.4 million, on Jackson instead of the more expensive exclusive tag, the Ravens are betting that no team will make an offer that they can uncomfortably match. Their risk initially surprised some former agents and team executives who study NFL business. But if Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta had good reason to feel confident that no team would come close to offering $230 million in guaranteed money Deshaun Watson received from the Cleveland Browns last offseason? What if Jackson’s pursuit of a new contract transcends his stalled negotiations with the Ravens and speaks to a larger rift between the league’s owners and its players’ union over the potential precedent created by Watson’s fully guaranteed deal?
Those are the questions at play as people around the league try to figure out what’s next for the Ravens and their most important player.
The stream of reports listing Jackson’s uninterested suitors could seem stale when the market opens next week, said ESPN commentator Mike Tannenbaum, a former top football executive for the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
“I think it’s way too early,” Tannenbaum said. “He is a great player. He’s 26 years old and a former league MVP. I think some of those teams that said something yesterday, it might have been to protect their own quarterbacks. I wouldn’t put too much stock in it.”
He still could envision teams like the Panthers or Falcons bidding for Jackson, but said the Ravens “probably feel really good about their offer.”
Billy Devaney, general manager of St. Louis Rams from 2008 to 2011, said the Ravens took a “pretty sure risk” given the unlikely chance any team would come close to the Browns’ deal with Watson.
“I can’t imagine another team that’s as ridiculous as Cleveland, but there’s always the threat that an owner can wake up and do something as stupid as the Browns did last year,” he said. “That’s the risk. I can’t imagine that’s going to happen.”
Some teams may have considered Jackson’s protracted negotiations with the Ravens and decided that if he wanted a Watson-like deal, they wouldn’t waste time approaching him, said Devaney, who is now the general manager of the USFL New Jersey Generals. He dismissed allegations that NFL owners could collude against the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player.
“These are smart guys,” he said. “They won’t do anything to leave themselves open to being accused of it. They won’t put themselves in that position.”
The NFL Players Association filed a collusion suit late last year against the owners over the fully guaranteed contracts. The association declined to comment Wednesday on the topic of potential collusion surrounding Jackson.
Per year Note NFL appeared in October, the NFLPA claimed that fully guaranteed contracts would become the norm after Watson’s contract, and that NFL owners discussed not giving out fully guaranteed contracts before and during an August meeting. The NFL said it “vigorously” opposed the claims.
Nathaniel Grow, a professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business who focuses on labor issues in professional sports, said that while NFL teams may or may not be colluding, it’s extremely difficult to prove that they are.
“You can suspect something is going on, but being able to prove that level of coordination can be much more difficult,” he said.
There are other plausible reasons — Jackson’s recent injuries, his prolonged negotiations with the Ravens — for a limited market.
“There are so many other explanations for this conduct that it’s hard to have that burden of proof and be able to prove, yes, this was in fact coordinated activity between two or more NFL teams,” Grow said.
In the 1980s, Major League Baseball owners were found to have colluded against free agents and had to pay out $280 million in damages to players. However, this finding was based on a pattern of behavior affecting several prominent stars.
Such a claim would be harder to make for a player like Jackson who faces a limited market. “His case is probably better as evidence of a larger scheme,” Grow said, “rather than just a single case.”
Others, like former NFL agent and executive Andrew Brandt, argued it was too early to have a serious conversation about collusion with Jackson.
“It seems like all of these things are pretty premature,” Brandt said. “Let’s see how it goes.”
CBS commentator and former agent Joel Corry said the quarterback market is unlikely to become friendlier to Jackson, who represents himself, if and when Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert sign extensions with the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles, respectively Chargers. None of those teams are considered free-spenders who would consider making a Watson-type offer.
“Nobody’s going to help him if you look at who’s going down the pike,” Corry said. “Maybe he softens his stance if he sees that no one else is getting a fully guaranteed contract.”
That said, there are potential suitors for Jackson who haven’t been ruled out by the reports, and it’s also worth noting that the story could change quickly Monday afternoon when teams are allowed to begin negotiating with him. The reported apathy from teams on Tuesday could turn out to be smokescreens.
The New York Jets are pursuing Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but if that doesn’t work out, Jackson would be the next best option in the superstar class. He would likely demand a bigger financial commitment than Rodgers, but the Jets could sacrifice two first-round picks and still contend right away.
The Indianapolis Colts would have to decide if they’d rather pay Jackson a huge amount of money than lock up a quarterback with the No. 4 pick this year. If the Colts were to make an offer to Jackson, would the value of that No. 4 pick, which the Ravens would receive as part of the compensation, be enough to make DeCosta think twice about the fit?
An ESPN report Tuesday night said the Las Vegas Raiders aren’t ruling anything out as they search for their next quarterback. It could pair Jackson with an elite group of players in a market that loves a good show, and the Ravens could be happy to have the No. 7 in this year’s draft. But multiple reports have suggested that Raiders owner Mark Davis may not have the financial liquidity to cover the deal Jackson is seeking.
The moribund Houston Texans could make an offer to Jackson, but they may prefer to build around whatever cheaper quarterback they can get with the No. 2 overall pick next month.
The Detroit Lions could add Jackson to supercharge an offense that lit up the league last year and offer quarterback Jared Goff as a backup to the Ravens in a sign-and-trade scenario. But would they give up a bunch of draft picks when they desperately need to build a defense to complement the offense?
The San Francisco 49ers couldn’t sign Jackson to an immediate offer sheet because they don’t have a 2023 first-round pick to give away to the Ravens. But if Jackson and the Ravens are willing to consider a sign-and-trade, the 49ers could add a franchise quarterback to a roster that was already on the verge of making the Super Bowl.
The Miami Dolphins would also have to go the sign-and-trade route if they want to make a play for Jackson before the draft, and have been firm about Tua Tagovailoa being their franchise quarterback. But with concerns about Tagovailoa’s concussions, talk won’t die down about the possibility of Jackson returning home to South Florida.
There’s no guarantee that questions about Jackson’s future will be answered quickly. Tag players rarely change teams by signing offer sheets, though it’s also unusual for a player of Jackson’s stature to find himself in that situation.
The Ravens have until July 17 to negotiate an extension with their quarterback, who may have a better understanding of his market after next week. But Jackson is in no rush. He could wait until Tuesday after Week 10 of the regular season to accept an offer sheet from another team or sign the Ravens’ franchise tender. He and the team could easily end up in a similar scenario this time next year.
The bottom line for the Ravens, Corry said, is that unless they match an offer sheet, two first-round picks would be inadequate compensation for Jackson.
“Watson and [Russell] Wilson went for the equivalent of three first-round picks,” he said. “You had non-spherical … pick more than two first-round picks. So I wouldn’t be happy with that compensation, which makes me think that if there’s an offer sheet, they’re going to match it regardless.”