An odd trend developed Tuesday in the hours immediately after the Ravens placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Instead of reports trumpeting the teams that might concoct offers for one of the NFL’s most dazzling talents, every news item seemed to reveal another franchise that would not pursue Jackson.
The Atlanta Falcons, the Washington Commanders, the Carolina Panthers — all thought to be hungry for a franchise quarterback, all ruled out quickly by leaks to various reporters.
Current and former players cried foul, with the term collusion taking center stage in a hurry. “Why are all of these teams so publicly ‘out’ on Lamar Jackson, an MVP winner in his prime at the most important position in the entire NFL?” recently retired defensive superstar J.J. Watt asked on Twitter. “What am I missing here?”
By placing the nonexclusive tag, worth about $32.4 million, on Jackson instead of the more costly exclusive tag, the Ravens bet that no team would make an offer they would be uncomfortable matching. Their risk initially stunned some former agents and team executives who study NFL business. But what if Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta had good reason to feel confident no team will come close to offering the $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 greater standoff between the league’s owners and its players’ union over the potential precedent set by Watson’s fully guaranteed deal?
These 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The flood of reports listing disinterested Jackson suitors might look outdated when the market opens next week, said ESPN commentator Mike Tannenbaum, a former top football executive for the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.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 soon,” Tannenbaum said. “He’s 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 into it.”
He could still envision teams such as the Panthers or Falcons bidding on Jackson but said the Ravens “probably feel really good about their offer.”
Billy Devaney, general manager of the St. Louis Rams from 2008 to 2011, said the Ravens took a “pretty safe risk,” given the unlikelihood of any team approaching the Browns’ deal with Watson.
“I can’t imagine another team being as ridiculous as Cleveland, but there’s always that threat that some owner may just wake up and do something as silly as the Browns did last year,” he said. “That’s the risk. I can’t imagine that happening.”
Some teams might have considered Jackson’s prolonged negotiations with the Ravens and decided that if he wants a Watson-like deal, they won’t waste their time approaching him, said Devaney, who is now the general manager of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals. He waved off allegations that NFL owners could be colluding against the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player.
“These are smart guys,” he said. “They’re not going to do anything to leave themselves open to be charged with that. They’re not going to put themselves in that position.”
The NFL Players Association filed a collusion claim late last year against owners regarding fully guaranteed contracts. The association declined Wednesday to comment on the topic of potential collusion surrounding Jackson.
Per an NFL memo leaked in October, the NFLPA argued that fully guaranteed contracts would become the norm after Watson’s contract and that NFL owners discussed not granting any more 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 pro sports, said that while NFL teams might or might not be colluding, it’s extremely difficult to demonstrate that they are.
“You can kind of suspect something’s happening, but to actually be able to prove that level of coordination can be a lot 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 actually coordinated activity among 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 $280 million in damages to the players. However, that finding was based on a pattern of behavior affecting multiple prominent stars.
Such a claim would be harder to make for one player, such as Jackson, facing a limited market. “His case is probably better as evidence of a larger scheme,” Grow said, “rather than just a case in and of its own right.”
Others, such as former NFL agent and executive Andrew Brandt, argued it’s too early to have a serious conversation about collusion regarding Jackson.
“It seems that all this stuff is pretty premature,” Brandt said. “Let’s see how it plays out.”
CBS commentator and former agent Joel Corry said the quarterback market is unlikely to become friendlier for Jackson, who represents himself, if and when Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert sign their extensions with the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers, respectively. Neither of those teams is considered a free spender that would consider handing out a Watson-type deal.
“Nobody’s going to help him if you look at who’s coming down the pike,” Corry said. “Maybe he softens his stance if he sees no one else is getting a fully guaranteed contract.”
That said, there are potential suitors for Jackson that have not been ruled out by reports, and it’s also useful to keep in mind that the story could change rapidly Monday afternoon, when teams are allowed to start negotiating with him. The reported apathy from teams Tuesday could turn out to have been smokescreens.
The New York Jets are pursuing Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but if that does not work out, Jackson would be their next-best option in the superstar class. He would likely demand a greater 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 prefer paying Jackson a huge sum of money to simply drafting a quarterback with the No. 4 overall pick this year. If the Colts did 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 matching?
An ESPN report Tuesday evening said the Las Vegas Raiders have ruled nothing out as they look for their next quarterback. They could pair Jackson with a group of elite playmakers in a market that loves a good show, and the Ravens might be happy to have the No. 7 pick in this year’s draft. But several reports have suggested Raiders owner Mark Davis might not have the financial liquidity to cover the deal Jackson is seeking.
The moribund Houston Texans could make a splash with an offer to Jackson, but they might prefer to build around whichever cheaper quarterback they’re able to draft 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 they could offer quarterback Jared Goff as a stopgap solution for the Ravens in a sign-and-trade scenario. But would they give up a pile of draft picks when they desperately need to build a defense to complement the offense?
The San Francisco 49ers could not sign Jackson to an immediate offer sheet because they don’t have a 2023 first-round pick to give 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 cusp of making the Super Bowl.
The Miami Dolphins also would have to go the sign-and-trade route if they want to make a play for Jackson before the draft, and they have said adamantly that Tua Tagovailoa is their franchise quarterback. But given the concerns around Tagovailoa’s concussions, talk will not die about the possibility of Jackson returning home to South Florida.
There’s no guarantee questions about Jackson’s future will be answered quickly. Tagged players rarely change teams by signing offer sheets, though it’s also unusual for a player of Jackson’s stature to be in this situation.
The Ravens have until July 17 to negotiate an extension with their quarterback, who might have a better sense of his market after next week. But Jackson does not have to hurry. He could wait until the 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 at this time next year.
The bottom line for the Ravens, Corry said, is that if they don’t 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’ve had non-quarterbacks … go for more than two first-round picks. So I would not be happy with that compensation, which leads me to believe that if there is an offer sheet, they’ll match it no matter what.”