As the Baltimore Ravens creep toward their Week 1 matchup with the New York Jets on September 11, they're also inching toward a pivotal point with quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The 32nd pick in the 2018 draft is in the final year of his rookie contract. He's been eligible for an extension since last offseason but has yet to come to an agreement with the Ravens.
Jackson, who is representing himself in negotiations, has set a deadline for Week 1. Presumably, he'll end contract talks until next offseason if a deal isn't done by then.
"We're coming up to it," Jackson said in a press conference (h/t Myles Simmons of ProFootballTalk). "It's coming up. The season's coming up. We're going to be good for the season."
While Jackson worked away from the team for part of the offseason, he reported early to training camp and has not indicated that he'll refuse to play without a new deal before Week 1. Therefore, his deadline appears to be more about shifting focus to the playing field.
In other words, Baltimore has until September 11 to extend Jackson. That puts some pressure on the Ravens but in no way exposes them to losing Jackson in 2023. They will still have until the start of free agency to work out a new deal and can always use the franchise tag.
You can bet that the Ravens are keeping this reality in mind during negotiations since there's no reason to jump on a contract they view as unfavorable. However, there are pros and cons to signing Jackson long-term before his stated deadline arrives.
And you can also bet that Baltimore isn't the only franchise paying attention here.
Why Extending Jackson Now Would Make Sense
The benefit of extending Jackson now rather than in 2023 is largely financial. Quarterback contracts are consistently rising due to the next-man-up-gets-more nature of negotiations.
Upon being traded to the Cleveland Browns early in the offseason, Deshaun Watson received a deal worth $46 million annually. Kyler Murray was the next quarterback to be paid this offseason and signed a deal worth $46.1 million annually.
There are outliers to this formula, of course. Aaron Rodgers, for example, signed a deal worth $50.3 million annually—making him the league's highest-paid quarterback based on average annual value—before Watson.
Of course, Rodgers has won back-to-back MVP awards. Watson got an unprecedented fully guaranteed contract worth $230 million, but he also had multiple trade suitors, including the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.
According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the Ravens are already willing to one-up Murray's deal.
"From what I understand, the Ravens are, as they should, willing to go more than that," Rapoport told the Pat McAfee Show (at the 1:02 mark).
So, something just above Murray's deal—five years, $230.5 million with $160 million guaranteed—appears to be the baseline right now. The problem with waiting to extend Jackson is that he's not the only quarterback eligible for a new contract.
Russell Wilson, who was traded from the Seattle Seahawks to the Denver Broncos this offseason, should also be getting a new deal before long. His contract expires after the 2023 season, and we can assume that Denver didn't trade for Wilson as a two-year rental.
The Broncos, who have a new ownership group, have been quiet about Wilson's new deal.
"At this point, nothing to say about his contract," co-owner and CEO Greg Penner said of Wilson at his introductory press conference.
Wilson, though, is also likely eyeing a deal that pays more than Murray's. And if he signs an extension before Jackson does, the Ravens will have a new bar to clear, with the caveat being that Jackson won't have to pay a percentage to an agent and may accept less money as a result. Maybe.
Things will be even more complicated in 2023, as young rising quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert will both be eligible for extensions. Either or both could potentially establish the new going rate for a franchise quarterback, and if they do so before Jackson puts pen to paper, it may cost Baltimore millions.
The Ravens could also risk Jackson's contract status becoming a distraction by waiting. His Week 1 deadline is likely meant to mitigate that risk, but can Jackson dismiss it completely? Will he be as willing to scramble, buy time in the pocket and expose himself to injury if he's still waiting on his payday?
If not, it's a huge problem. Jackson's ability to win with his arm and his legs is what makes him a special talent.
The Argument Against Extending Jackson Before Week 1
There's plenty of financial sense in extending Jackson before Week 1. Doing so wouldn't be a risk-free decision, though. We've seen in the past that extending a quarterback too early can have complications down the line.
The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles extended Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively, in 2019. Both deals came before the quarterbacks' rookie contracts had expired, and each set a new high-water mark for guarantees in an NFL contract.
Goff and Wentz were both traded less than two years later.
At the time of their extensions, Goff and Wentz appeared to be franchise quarterbacks. Wentz had a Pro Bowl campaign in 2017 and played a large role in Philadelphia reaching the Super Bowl that season, even though Nick Foles steered Philly through the postseason and to a title.
Goff, meanwhile, was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and 2018 and helped L.A. reach Super Bowl LIII.
Neither quarterback, however, had sustained success over more than a couple of seasons. In retrospect, both early extensions were mistakes. That's the cost of doing business in the quarterback-driven NFL and precisely why the Arizona Cardinals were willing to bet on Murray after only three years.
Jackson, similarly, has two excellent seasons on his resume. He was the unanimous MVP in 2019 and finished with 1,005 rushing yards and a 99.3 passer rating in 2020. Interestingly, Jackson made his second Pro Bowl last season in what was arguably his worst campaign as a full-time starter.
Jackson threw 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2021, missed five games due to an illness and an ankle injury and finished with a rating of only 87.0. Baltimore missed the postseason for the first time since Jackson became the starter.
To be fair, Jackson's individual highs—which include just about everything connected to his 2019 MVP campaign—are higher than anything we saw from Goff or Wentz. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Jackson is coming off of an injury-hampered season and is two years removed from the pinnacle of his career thus far.
There's a chance that Jackson peaked in 2019. He's older, has taken more hits and has more tread on the proverbial tires.
It would be unfair to discount Jackson's arm talent, leadership and football IQ—he didn't lead the league in touchdown passes by accident in 2019—but his dual-threat ability is what makes him so difficult to defend, and his play style does leave him susceptible to injury.
Additionally, the 2023 quarterback class, headlined by Alabama's Bryce Young and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, is expected to be loaded with talent. This could play into Baltimore's thinking. The Ravens are likely eying the playoffs and not a top-10 draft pick. However, they could wind up within draft range of a new signal-caller if Jackson performs poorly or suffers another injury.
If the Ravens extend Jackson now, they'll be tied to him for the long-term, even if they have a shot at an elite quarterback prospect in 2023.
While it may cost Baltimore financially to wait on an extension, doing so would give Jackson the chance to prove that his 2021 campaign was the outlier, not his 2019 MVP season. If the Ravens didn't have at least some doubt, they wouldn't have waited this long to lock up Jackson.
Why Others Will Be Watching
There are a couple of reasons why negotiations between Jackson and the Ravens may impact the quarterback market.
For starters, teams, players and agents will be extremely interested in what sort of contract the Louisville product ultimately receives. This relates, in part, to Cleveland's deal with Watson.
Before he landed with the Browns, Watson sat out the 2021 season with the Houston Texans. The Browns, Falcons, Saints and Panthers—and quite possibly other teams who never went public—were all desperate to land the three-time Pro Bowler, despite the fact that he faced league discipline under the personal conduct policy.
Watson initially faced 24 lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct. While he has settled 23 of those cases and two grand juries in Texas declined to indict him on criminal charges, he was handed a six-game suspension by the league and NFLPA's jointly appointed disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson following a hearing in June.
The NFL has appealed that punishment and will send the case to former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey for reconsideration. Harvey will decide whether to uphold, reduce or extend the suspension, and his decision will be final.
According to ESPN, the league is seeking "an indefinite suspension that would be a minimum of one year ... as well as a monetary fine (which Watson was not levied by Robinson) and treatment that the star quarterback must undergo."
There's a very real chance that Watson will go two full years or more between regular-season games. Yet, Cleveland was willing to offer him a fully guaranteed extension to be the team for which Watson would waive his no-trade clause.
Murray didn't demand the same fully guaranteed treatment in his extension. If Jackson follows suit, then quarterback negotiations will likely be back to business as usual, which is what happened following Kirk Cousins' fully guaranteed contract in 2018.
But, what if Jackson does demand, and receive, a fully guaranteed multi-year deal? He isn't negotiating with multiple teams as Watson was.
"Deshaun had more leverage," Rapoport told McAfee (at the 23-second mark).
It would make for a truly landscape-altering deal.
Would Burrow, Herbert and any quarterbacks that follow them in the contract queue accept anything less than a fully guaranteed contract after witnessing Jackson get one? The mere notion is laughable.
At the same time, the Ravens could potentially change the negotiation game by allowing Jackson to play out his rookie deal and then getting another year or even two via the franchise tag. It would make financial sense if Baltimore isn't completely sold on Jackson's future.
The franchise tag number for quarterbacks this year was $29.7 million, according to NFL.com. That's far below what Watson and Murray received this offseason. If the Ravens are willing to go year-to-year with Jackson—as the Washington Commanders were with Cousins in 2016 and 2017—it could help normalize the strategy for teams that aren't 100 percent sure what they have in a quarterback.
A few years ago, the Rams were willing to bet $110 million in guarantees on Goff. That's obviously a lot, but what happens when the going rate for guarantees becomes double that or more?
Right now, the trend is to pay a quarterback early in order to jump the market. Given the rapidly rising rate of signal-callers, the norm could eventually be to wait until a quarterback has proven himself over multiple campaigns before handing him a huge long-term deal.
In between these two ends of the contract spectrum will be franchises hoping that Jackson doesn't sign at all, refuses to play on the franchise tag and forces his way out of Baltimore entirely. As we saw with Watson, there will always be teams willing to do whatever it takes in the pursuit of a potential franchise quarterback.
Regardless of how things play out for Jackson and the Ravens, a lot of eyes will be watching that September 11 deadline. It's a date that could have implications for more than the two sides currently negotiating.
All contract information courtesy of Spotrac unless otherwise noted.