As contract year for Ravens QB Lamar Jackson looms, a return in 2023 is already likely



Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been asked a lot of questions about his contract negotiations over the past few months. He’s been asked whether he expects to remain in Baltimore (he does) and whether Deshaun Watson’s fully guaranteed deal matters to him (it doesn’t). He’s been asked whether he feels worthy of an extension (he does) and whether discussions will continue up until the season kicks off Sunday (they won’t).

On Wednesday, Jackson got a new question about his contract negotiations, one he hadn’t seemed to consider. The 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player’s deadline for an extension is Friday. The Ravens open the season Sunday against the New York Jets. With Jackson potentially just days away from playing out the final year of his rookie contract, a rarity for stars of his magnitude, had he considered taking out loss-of-value and disability insurance policies that would offer protection in case of a career-threatening injury?

“I haven’t thought about any injuries, or anything like that,” he said. “I just came off one last season, and I’m feeling pretty good this season. I don’t even want to put that in the atmosphere. So on to the next question on that one.”

For as long as Jackson’s unsigned, there will always be a next question. Over the year and a half in which Ravens officials have had to negotiate a long-term extension, Jackson’s contract status has morphed into one of the NFL’s biggest storylines. Every new quarterback megadeal brings a new data point for Jackson, a new question from reporters, a new wrinkle in the Ravens’ narrative.

Amid all the uncertainty is maybe the least flustered person in the whole affair: Jackson himself. Perhaps because he knows that, whatever happens on the field this season, he’s financially secure in a way that few NFL veterans entering their contract year could ever dream of being.

Jackson will make $23 million this season, a bargain for a Pro Bowl-level quarterback. If the Ravens can’t strike a deal before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next offseason, they’re expected to designate Jackson with the franchise tag. Under an exclusive franchise tag, Jackson would likely be owed about $45 million in 2023.

What might stop the Ravens from reinvesting? The list is short. Serious injury wasn’t enough to deter the Cowboys last year. In 2020, star quarterback Dak Prescott, playing on the franchise tag — and reportedly with insurance policies in place — suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5. In March 2021, Dallas placed an exclusive franchise tag on the rehabilitating Prescott for the second straight season. A day later, he signed a four-year, $160 million contract extension that included the richest signing bonus in NFL history.

“As cliche as it is, and I’ll say it again, I’m insulted when people say I gambled, because you get out what you put into something,” Prescott said of playing on the tag. “And as I’ve said, I’ve given so much and I’m going to continue to give. And that’s how you reap the rewards.”

Added Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: “The truth is most anything that I’ve ever been involved in that ended up being special, I overpaid for, every time, to the end. Anytime I’ve tried to get a bargain, I got just that, it was a bargain in a lot of ways and not up to standard.”

Jackson has largely avoided scandal off the field and injuries on it. Before a bone bruise in his ankle sidelined him for the final four-plus games of last season, Jackson had missed just three starts over his three years as a full-time starter: once for rest ahead of the playoffs, once because of a coronavirus infection and once because of an illness.

If keeping Jackson in 2023 somehow proved untenable, the Ravens’ potential succession plans would be limited. Tyler Huntley has emerged as one of the NFL’s better backup quarterbacks, but his arm strength limits his potential as a passer, and his running ability falls short of Jackson’s generational talents. Trading for a starting quarterback could be prohibitively expensive. The 2023 class of free-agent quarterbacks, other than 45-year-old Tom Brady, is undistinguished.

Even if the Ravens wanted to move on from Jackson by drafting a quarterback in late April, they’d have to decide by March 7, when the window to designate players with the franchise tag closes.

For a franchise that values stability and success, a divorce next spring seems unlikely. The opportunity cost could be enormous. Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has reiterated his commitment to keeping Jackson in Baltimore, and Jackson has reiterated his desire to stay. He said Wednesday that he doesn’t see any greater risk in playing this season than he did last season or in 2020.

“I wasn’t thinking about contract negotiations around that time,” he said. “This season, it’s going to be the same thing, but I’m just playing football. Anything can happen, but God forbid the wrong thing happens. I’m keeping God first and just playing ball, like I’ve been doing.”

As Jackson turns his attention to the Ravens’ season, teammates and coaches have done the same. Coach John Harbaugh said Monday that while he’s “very hopeful” the two sides can agree on a new deal, “the focus remains on the football.” Cornerback Marlon Humphrey said Wednesday that Jackson “doesn’t really talk” about his contract negotiations. He wasn’t worried about a distraction, or their future.

“I think it’s definitely interesting how it’s going, for sure, but nobody knows what’s going on,” Humphrey said, grinning. “He’s his own agent, so I guess whatever conversations they’re having, hopefully, they’re good. Hopefully, they can get done pretty soon here. But I have no doubt he’ll be here for his whole career, so I’m excited about that, being his teammate for a long time.”

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