Like Aaron Rodgers a year ago, Lamar Jackson’s NFL future will boil down to resolving one thing

Will franchise tags come into play as Baltimore, Jackson negotiate in NFL offseason?

A year ago, when the Green Bay Packers were staring at their crossroads with Aaron Rodgers, the impasse was supposedly about everything but his contract.

Rodgers wanted more communication with the front office, more inclusion in the team’s planning and more respect for the core veterans who built the culture. All of that, plus one gargantuan side item for the league’s reigning MVP: A reworked contract that made him Green Bay’s unquestioned starter through at least the 2023 season and the distinction of being the highest paid player in the NFL. When it was all over, the final tally was undeniable.

Whatever short-term promises the Packers' front office couldn’t guarantee got resolved with flying colors by the long-term guaranteed money.

This is the formula that will resolve the impasse between Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. Write it down. Laminate it. Revisit it in weeks, months, years, however long it takes for the inevitable number to be reached. That’s what this was about last September. It’s what it’s about now. And it’s what it will be about if Jackson ultimately plays the 2023 season under a franchise tag. Focusing it through anything else is a shell game that moves around the same issue.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh (left) said Thursday:
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh (left) said Thursday: "One hundred percent — you know, 200 percent. There's no question about it. Lamar Jackson is our quarterback." (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

That should have been the takeaway in Thursday’s news conference, when Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta reaffirmed the same thing they’ve been saying since the start of this negotiation: They want Jackson as the Ravens' long-term starting quarterback; they want to get a deal done; and they aren’t in a hurry to publicly detail why this is all taking so long.

Somehow, all of that was treated as a revelatory news item, despite it being the exact stance the organization has been in since the moment negotiations began. How sure is the team that Jackson is the future at quarterback? Well, allow Harbaugh to tack on some rhetoric to drive the point home again.

“One hundred percent — you know, 200 percent,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “There’s no question about it. Lamar Jackson is our quarterback. He’s been our quarterback. Everything we’ve done in terms of building our offense and building our team, how we think in terms of the people around him, is based on this incredible young man and his talent and his ability and his competitiveness."

Yes, if you’d forgotten the platitudes about hard work and communication and optimism, there was no shortage of them Thursday. Just as there was no shortage of window dressing issues, from Jackson having input on the next offensive coordinator, to the investment in the wide receiver depth chart, to the surrounding offensive pieces being poised to compete.

Surely, these are all good signs when it comes to the Ravens wanting Jackson back. But again, the franchise has never said it doesn’t want Jackson back. What the Ravens have said — repeatedly — is that this is a tough negotiation in progress. That the two sides haven’t gotten a deal done. And that some contract talks are more difficult and time consuming than others.

Thursday was really a one-sentence news conference that could have ended with DeCosta’s first line about his confidence in getting Jackson’s extension done: “It certainly takes two to tango.”

Right there. That’s it. That’s the message that this is in the same place it has been from the start, with two sides staring at each other and trying to figure out the precise contract number and set of guarantees that keeps Jackson in the fold long term.

The avenues to resolving this are as simple as they were in August. Baltimore can meet Jackson at the total guaranteed money that he’s seeking or Jackson can soften his stance on how close he comes to a fully guaranteed deal. If neither happens, Baltimore can seek continued control of Jackson’s future with franchise tags and he can either go along for the ride or refuse and force a trade.

This has always been the road forward, with various bridges to cross along the way. This week, negotiations pick up where they left off. Next month, the window opens for the team to put either the exclusive franchise tag on Jackson (potentially resulting in a salary around $45 million) or a nonexclusive tag (projecting to be around $32.5 million). The exclusive tag would mean Jackson can negotiate only with the Ravens. The nonexclusive tag would result in Jackson being allowed to negotiate a free-agent contract with other teams, then allowing Baltimore to match the deal or receive two first-round draft picks in compensation.

That tag window opens Feb. 21 and extends to March 7. If the two sides don’t have an extension done by then, Jackson will absolutely be tagged. That is a foregone conclusion.

Once he is tagged, the burden shifts to Jackson making a decision about what the move means and how he responds. Would he decline to immediately sign an exclusive tag and remain away from the team all offseason? Likely yes. Would he negotiate a deal with another team if he’s strapped with a nonexclusive franchise tag? Also, likely yes. Is this all coming to a meaningful crossroads? Absolutely.

One way or another, we’re going to find out how insurmountable the gap is between Jackson and the Ravens. Either through the use of a specific tag or how Jackson responds in the face of it. The key out is no bigger a mystery than it was when the negotiations broke off last September.

This is going down the Rodgers road. There will be plenty of sideshows, resolutions and platitudes about what is important. The money remains the main attraction. Just like it always has been.