Lamar Jackson Contract Talks Offer Litmus Test for Guaranteed QB Cash

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Lamar Jackson’s talent to make game-changing plays on the field has the Baltimore Ravens quarterback on the verge of securing life-changing money—and perhaps a league-changing deal

Jackson, who is playing this season on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, has begun negotiations for what could be the most lucrative NFL pact ever. The circumstances are both unusual and favorable for the 25-year old two-time Pro Bowler, who is negotiating his own contract with the help of trusted advisors but no agent. Many observers believe he is in position to sign a historic extension.

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It starts with his on-field performance, which includes winning NFL MVP honors in 2019 and guiding Ravens’ squads to playoff berths in three of the last four seasons, at times almost by himself. Jackson’s spins and ankle-breaking jukes, along with his timely passing, have made him one of the NFL’s most exciting players.

In addition, there are the NFL’s bountiful revenues, which, after the league’s $105 billion in media-rights renewals in 2021, have already opened spending floodgates for quarterbacks such as Kyler Murray and Aaron Rodgers.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s Deshaun Watson’s contract with the Cleveland Browns, which not only will pay Watson $230 million over five years, but also shattered longstanding NFL precedent by making the entire sum guaranteed money. Quarterback Kirk Cousins’ 2018 contract with the Minnesota Vikings (three years, $84 million) was the first fully guaranteed deal, but Watson’s contract in March may have set a new standard for the future—and is a relevant comp for Jackson, who has not been suspended for six games this season like Watson has.

“We’re heading in the direction of more and more guaranteed contracts,” NFL super-agent Leigh Steinberg said. “Every new young quarterback who signs a deal is going to be pushing the envelope for more and more guarantees, if they don’t get a totally guaranteed.”

For now, Jackson’s fifth-year option of his rookie contract is worth $23 million total. This is the final year of his contract before it expires in March, though the Ravens could put the franchise tag on him if another offseason passes with no new contract in place. After playing out his rookie contract on an average of $2.3 million per year, Jackson’s patience could prove beneficial, as he only increases his leverage to get the long-term deal he desires, barring injury.

Watson’s situation isn’t completely comparable to Jackson’s expiring rookie contract; he was on a previous extension from the Houston Texans that paid him $39 million per year. But Jackson likely wants something similar to Watson’s new Browns salary. That turns the attention to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, whose team is worth $3.4 billion, 21st in the NFL, according to Sportico’s valuations.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, desperate for a franchise quarterback, paid an unprecedented fee, putting $184 million into an escrow account, to snag one of the best in the league. Haslam has a net worth of $4 billion, per Forbes, while Bisciotti is just above at $5.8 billion. Would Bisciotti be willing to make similar arrangements to satisfy his star—especially after paying Jackson just $1.7 million last season, more than $30 million less than market value?

“I’m sure Lamar is looking at Deshaun’s deal and saying, ‘Hey, that’s what I want,’ and that must be one of the factors on why a deal isn’t done yet,” former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said.

Murray, the Arizona Cardinals quarterback, recently signed a $230 million contract extension, $160 million of it guaranteed, and will make $46 million annually on average, second to only Rodgers, who re-upped with the Packers in March. Murray could easily see the entire amount as franchise quarterbacks typically do. But there’s just something about fully guaranteed money that sends a ripple around the quarterback-driven league.

“Those deals are hugely consequential for the future,” Tannenbaum said, and are likely to affect the finances of top young QBs including Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert.

The Ravens may give Jackson what he wants, during the preseason or when the regular season ends. The front office could also trade him, potentially for multiple first-round draft picks, after he plays out one of two possible franchise tags in 2023. Even so, Jackson has real leverage as free agency approaches.

“He’s proved himself,” former Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis said in a phone interview. “[Jackson] brings everything that you need to lead an NFL franchise. What more can you ask for? He’s going to make plays for you, and he’s going to get you on primetime TV, which is good for the brand.”

Steinberg points out that a franchise quarterback is the biggest asset an NFL team has, and signing an extension sends a message to not only the player and his teammates but the entire organization. He said star quarterback negotiations are not normally played out publicly, with Jackson’s case being the latest example.

“It’s a better strategy to do it privately,” Steinberg said, “but it’s inevitable that he’ll get a breakthrough contract.”

Whether Jackson must wait until next week or next year to get a new deal, people in league circles will be watching closely, most notably for the level of guaranteed money for the run-heavy quarterback. It not only impacts him but the next class of quarterbacks behind him.

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