Although Lamar Jackson didn't suit up or even attend Sunday's playoff loss to the rival Cincinnati Bengals, the result of that game may have helped his case to lock up a long-term contract as much as a sterling performance in it would have.
The injured Baltimore Ravens quarterback, who has been sidelined with a PCL sprain since Week 13, watched as his squad's offense failed to do enough down the stretch to sneak by a bitter divisional rival. Backup quarterback Tyler Huntley—dealing with shoulder tendinitis—couldn't spark a comeback after his fumble at the goal line was returned for the eventual game-winning touchdown.
It was a disheartening finish for the underdog Ravens, one that likely could have been avoided with Jackson in the lineup. After seeing the late-game struggles from their backup signal-caller, Baltimore's brass should be working overtime to get a long-term deal in place with their starter.
Contract talk has followed Jackson since the 2022 league year opened, but the 26-year-old just finished the final season on his rookie deal without getting an extension in place. As it stands, Jackson is set to become the hottest free agent on the open market and will have no shortage of suitors interested if Baltimore lets him reach that point.
NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported Monday the Ravens still consider Jackson to be their franchise quarterback and do plan to utilize the franchise tender if they can't reach a long-term deal.
Ian Rapoport @RapSheet
From <a href="https://twitter.com/gmfb?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@GMFB</a>: What's next for <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ravens?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Ravens</a> QB Lamar Jackson? I visited the studio to discuss… <a href="https://t.co/ax4Kc7x1oM">pic.twitter.com/ax4Kc7x1oM</a>
But putting their superstar on a one-year contract—even one as lucrative as a quarterback franchise tag, which Spotrac projects will ring up just north of $45 million—could quickly become a source of frustration for the uniquely talented QB. Avoiding a holdout from Jackson should be atop Baltimore's to-do list after a promising campaign ended in disappointing fashion due to his injury.
In his Football Morning in America column, NFL insider Peter King noted the Ravens could opt for a non-exclusive franchise tag, allowing Jackson to seek a contract elsewhere while the club still gets a chance to match it or receive compensation if it declines to.
It's easy to see how that lack of commitment could irk a player whose team has been pinning its Super Bowl hopes on for the last five years. While the marriage hasn't resulted in a title yet, Jackson has been healthy enough to finish out the season and lead the Ravens into the playoffs three times. The Louisville product finally won his first postseason game during his most recent appearance, after the 2020 season.
With Jackson dealing with injuries to end each of the last two seasons, Baltimore missed the playoffs entirely in 2021 and failed to advance out of the wild-card round when they made it back despite going 2-3 in the five games Jackson was sidelined for this year.
The team's ceiling is noticeably lower when Jackson isn't in the lineup, making it past time for the Ravens to either receive significant compensation in exchange for their quarterback or offer him a contract that brings stability to the organization for another half-decade.
Jackson hasn't been perfect by any stretch. His decision to stay home during Baltimore's trip to Cincy this past weekend and tweeting out his health status were mildly controversial.
Former New Orleans Saints head coach and current Fox Sports analyst Sean Payton provided some insight during a recent broadcast (h/t Yahoo! Sports' Charles Robinson) into why some teammates may be upset with their quarterback:
"They're in a playoff game and I get if he's not playing, but this whole tweet out [from Jackson last week saying] 'Let me explain my whole medical status' — look, I'm hearing grumblings from a handful of folks there that [there are] teammates that feel like his process has been slower than expected, I just don't like it. The team's more important right now than you and we appreciate the information on your injury status. You're not playing. I get it."
Despite this, Jackson has been a major boon to his franchise ever since emerging as the starter midway through his 2018 rookie campaign. Teammates have recently begun to publicly lobby for an extension, with veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell urging ownership to get a deal in place rather than take a chance on an unknown prospect (via ESPN's Jamison Hensley):
"You can't let a guy like him go. There's always some new, exciting kid that has potential to go out there and be great. But this is a business of 'for sures' and 'knowns,' and you know who Lamar Jackson is. I think it's in the best interest of the Ravens organization to give him a long-term contract and make him 'the guy.'"
Campbell touched on one of the only alternatives Baltimore has to re-signing Jackson: accruing draft capital and starting from scratch with a rookie.
The Ravens likely wouldn't be able to land one of the blue-chip quarterback prospects with their current best pick at No. 23 overall, but Jackson could return several lofty selections if he's ultimately dealt. A slew of clubs selecting in the top-10 all have a huge hole at quarterback, including the Houston Texans (No. 2 overall) and Indianapolis Colts (No. 4).
Jackson would conceivably net multiple Day 1 and 2 picks, allowing the Ravens to draft a high-end prospect to replace him quickly. As Campbell noted, however, that decision comes with considerable risk. There are plenty of busts who fail to pan out for every Pro Bowler—especially at the quarterback position—who emerges from a draft class.
The Ravens already have a bona fide Pro Bowler in Jackson. Since entering the league, Jackson has earned a pair of nods to the All-Star game while setting records with his legs—racking up an eye-popping 4,437 yards and 24 touchdowns on 727 regular-season carries—and developing into a reliable passer, completing 63.7 percent of his throws for 12,209 yards and 101 touchdowns against 38 interceptions.
He's one of the most uniquely talented quarterbacks to ever grace the NFL and has a chance to continue breaking the mold as he matures on his second contract.
Baltimore would be the ideal place for that development to continue—the roster and scheme are already tailor-made to suit the quarterback's strengths and hide his weaknesses—but it's hard to envision a situation where Jackson wouldn't continue improving while lifting the offense to new heights.
With so many competing franchises desperate for a player of Jackson's caliber, there will likely be plenty of enticing offers heading the quarterback's way if Baltimore gives him the green light to shop around for a new contract.
Rather than simply trying to match those lucrative deals to keep a quarterback who would have every right to be disgruntled by that point, the Ravens must go above and beyond to keep Jackson happy. Coming to the table with a strong long-term contract offer along with plans for the future that are centered around the signal-caller would be a good starting point.
Once Jackson is inked for the foreseeable future, the Ravens will be secure in their contending status and can focus on getting more complementary pieces in place to come back better than ever in 2023.