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Lamar Jackson’s free agency is moving slow because that’s what NFL owners want

It’s been one week since teams were allowed to make an offer to Lamar Jackson. The Ravens’ quarterback is effectively on the market after being given the non-exclusive franchise tag, which allows any team to make Jackson an offer — at which point Baltimore can either match the deal, or choose to let him leave, receiving two first-round draft picks as compensation.

This is as much of a no-brainer as we’ve seen in football. We’re talking about a 26-year-old franchise quarterback, who’s won an MVP. Jackson is one of the most electrifying players in the game, and has either led the Ravens to the playoffs, or contended for the playoffs every year he’s been in the NFL — even as the talent around him has dwindled and weapons have been traded away.

Giving up two first-round picks is peanuts in the era of quarterback movement and trades. The Carolina Panthers gave up two firsts and their top wide receiver to move up to No. 1 in the draft in the hopes of finding a franchise QB. The 49ers gave up three first round picks to select Trey Lance in 2021. In terms of established quarterbacks the price tag has been even heftier, with the Rams trading two firsts are Jared Goff for a 33-year-old Matthew Stafford, the Broncos gave up two firsts, two seconds and more for Russell Wilson, while the Browns sent three firsts as part of a package for Deshaun Watson.

These were all intense deals, which required difficult negotiations. By comparison there’s almost nothing needed when it comes to Lamar Jackson: You meet with him, and if he agrees to sign you wait and see what Baltimore will do — that’s it. With so many teams in immediate need of a quarterback and several move needing to prepare for the future it’s never made more sense to sign Jackson and lock down the position for the foreseeable future. So why haven’t we seen a feeding frenzy around him? That’s where this gets complicated.

Jackson wants to get paid what he’s worth

Nobody in the NFL has out-performed his contract more than Lamar Jackson. Falling in the 2018 draft, Jackson was taken by the Ravens with the 32nd pick in the 1st round. His entry level contract based on draft slot was 4 years, $9.47 million.

Baltimore obviously hit gold, because Jackson has routinely proven he belongs in the conversation among the league’s top players. Perhaps he’s not the best pure passer, but when it comes to dual-threat quarterbacks only Jalen Hurts belongs in the discussion right now. Jackson proved he can easily move the ball through the air when he has weapons, he can win, and can be the face of the team.

The Ravens, well, they got greedy. They had one of the best players in the NFL on a bargain basement contract and weren’t willing to extend him early like the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes, or the Bills did with Josh Allen. Instead they exercised Jackson’s fifth year option and wanted to see how it played out. It became clear the Ravens were going to try and keep their quarterback playing for as little as possible, for as long as possible.

At this point even certifiable busts from the same draft class have made more money than Lamar Jackson after being cut, traded, and re-signing with other teams.

  • Baker Mayfield: $48.3M
  • Sam Darnold: $50.3M
  • Lamar Jackson: $37.5M

Even Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones, who were selected a year later than Jackson have received their long-term deals, while Jackson is still left in the wind. It should be noted that he turned down an extension from the Ravens in 2022, but very little is known about that offer and whether it paid him among the league’s best — though it’s been rumored that it was extremely low compared to similar players.

Jackson also wants to get paid among the league’s top quarterbacks right now

The blame for ballooning quarterback contracts doesn’t rest with Lamar Jackson. The Cleveland Browns absolutely destroyed the veteran QB market in 2022 when they signed Deshaun Watson to a 5 year, $230 million contract which was fully guaranteed after trading for him.

Part of this was unquestionably a tax to make Watson agree to be traded to the Browns, but it sent shockwaves through the NFL. Kyler Murray signed his extension with the Cardinals shortly after, this time for a matching 5 year, $230 million deal, but with $103M guaranteed. Russell Wilson signed a 5 year, $245 million extension with $124 million guaranteed. Aaron Rodgers rounded out the group, getting a lower overall deal to account for his age — but also with over $100 million in guaranteed money.

Suddenly guaranteed money became the sticking point in a majority of deals. NFL contracts, which have traditionally always benefited owners more than players, saw a power shift to align more closely with the NBA or MLB where all contracts are fully guaranteed. Football players don’t get that benefit, but quarterbacks in particular wanted to secure their futures with at least a large portion of their deals locked in.

The Ravens’ final offer reportedly came in at 6 years, with $133 million guaranteed. A longer contract than the other quarterbacks, with substantially less guaranteed money on a yearly basis. Jackson wanted to be paid much closer than DeShaun Watson that the offer he received, so he turned down the extension.

It’s definitely starting to feel like collusion by NFL owners

On March 29, 2022 the owner of the Ravens, Steve Bisciotti said the quiet part out loud in response to Deshaun Watson’s contract.

“I’m trying to answer that when I had a reaction to it. And it’s like, ‘Damn, I wish they hadn’t guaranteed the whole contract,’” Bisciotti said Tuesday at the NFL league meetings. “I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”

Owners categorically do not want guaranteed contracts to become the norm. Any businessperson would kill to have the ability to void an employment contract, get off the hook for any remaining money, and be able to do it at a whim. It’s a benefit NFL owners have enjoyed for years, and players asking for guarantees wrestles that power away from them.

Executives around the league are making a slippery slope argument. They’re worried that if quarterbacks get their whole contracts guaranteed, then who will be the first to fully guarantee a wide receiver’s contract? Who will guarantee the next big-name defensive end?

This turns Jackson into a pawn. An example to be made out of. Under any other circumstance teams would be pushing each other out of the way like a doorbuster sale on Black Friday to sign Lamar Jackson, but so far there’s been crickets. So we have to ask why, and the answer seems simple:

This is collusion, plain and simple. If owners are privately agreeing not to improve their football teams and sign Jackson out of fear for what it might do to future NFL contract then they are in breach of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was signed by all parties in 2020.

In Article 17 of the 2020 agreement, titled “ANTI-COLLUSION” it clearly states (emphasis mine):

Section 1. Prohibited Conduct:
a) No Club, its employees or agents shall enter into any agreement, express or implied, with the NFL or any other Club, its employees or agents to restrict or limit individual Club decision-making as follows:
(i) whether to negotiate or not to negotiate with any player;
(ii) whether to submit or not to submit an Offer Sheet to any Restricted Free Agent;
(iii) whether to offer or not to offer a Player Contract to any player;
(iv) whether to exercise or not to exercise a Right of First Refusal; or
(v) concerning the terms or conditions of employment offered to any player for inclusion, or included, in a Player Contract.

Yet curiously, when it was announced that Jackson was being placed on the non-exclusive tag no fewer than six different teams had near-identical statements ready about how they “didn’t plan to pursue Lamar Jackson,” all within hours of each other.

“They were pretty quick to have those statements ready, huh?,” a source at the NFLPA told SB when asked about whether the union was concerned about teams colluding against Jackson. The source went on to say that the NFLPA is serving as an advisor to Jackson throughout the process, and are closely monitoring the situation moving forward.

What happens now?

Proving collusion is exceptionally difficult without a whistleblower willing to come forward. There’s the odd rumor here or there that a team could be interested in signing Lamar Jackson to an offer sheet, though we haven’t seen anything materialize.

Up to this point Jackson has been operating as his own agent, which is absolutely within his right. However, a report on Tuesday from Pro Football Talk alleged that someone who isn’t an NFLPA-certified agent, operating on Jackson’s behalf, was contacting NFL teams to evaluate their interest in signing him.

It’s currently unclear who this person is.

Should this process continue to drag out Jackson will likely either accept whatever extension the Ravens are offering or play under the tag in 2023. Baltimore could then tag Jackson again in 2024, paying him as astronomical one-year sum, but without any safety net should he be hurt.

There’s no doubt that this all smells. Even the more ardent Lamar Jackson critic has to acknowledge that a top-tier quarterback being placed on a non-exclusive tag is bizarre. It’s almost as if the Ravens were secure knowing nobody was going to screw them over by signing Jackson to a massive deal that put them over a barrel.

This process is far from over, but one thing is clear through all this smoke and fog: Any team that needs a quarterback and isn’t honestly considering Jackson cares far more about their checkbook than making their team better.

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