Why Lamar Jackson’s trade request tweet may tell us more about the last month than the next

PHOENIX — The inevitable headline stemmed from the second tweet, the 11th through 14th words: “I requested a trade.”

After all, it’s not every day that an NFL player, much less an NFL quarterback, and even more unusual a former NFL MVP, breaks his own news that he has requested his franchise trade him.

And it wasn’t on just any day or at any time that Lamar Jackson announced publicly that he had requested a trade from the Baltimore Ravens.

Jackson’s four-tweet thread dropped precisely at 10:48 a.m. ET, or 7:48 a.m. Arizona time — exactly three minutes into the AFC coaches’ 30-minute media window at the NFL’s annual owners meetings. The thread dropped as NFL team owners, personnel executives and head coaches all converged on the luxury Biltmore hotel for days of meetings … and maybe even conversations about personnel, with key decision-makers all under the same roof.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was left beginning his news conference with a request for comment on Jackson’s tweets, which he said he hadn’t seen.

Thirteen and a half minutes elapsed before any non-Jackson related questions would follow.

While the timing of Jackson’s tweets was fascinating, and the trade-request revelation a cocktail of the impressively assertive and perilously transparent, Jackson’s introductory phrase to that trade request might say even more about the likelihood his request is granted than the existence of the request at all.

Because while we wonder how the Ravens might respond to a request that feels new and fresh to us publicly, it’s possible they and the NFL at large already did. And it’s possible Jackson’s tweets tell us more about the past month than they will about the next one.

Lamar Jackson reveals curious order of events

The Ravens officially placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson at the March 7 deadline. That decision spurred a wave of questions.

Should Jackson be offended by the $32.4 million he’ll earn on the non-exclusive tag rather than the roughly $45 million the exclusive tag would have awarded him? Are the Ravens playing with fire allowing teams to negotiate — albeit with a two first-round draft pick floor — for the services of a 26-year-old former MVP? Why, the question soon became, did so many team sources confirm so quickly and so unusually transparently, that their club was not planning to negotiate for Jackson?

Were NFL owners colluding against the trend of fully guaranteed megadeals a year after the Cleveland Browns acquired Deshaun Watson and signed him to a fully guaranteed five-year deal worth $230 million a year ago?

Jackson’s tweets introduce another scenario: Had those trade conversations, and back-channel discussions of value and availability, already taken place?

Lamar Jackson's trade request tweet on Monday may have told us more about the past few weeks than the next. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson's trade request tweet on Monday may have told us more about the past few weeks than the next. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

“As of March 2nd,” Jackson tweeted, “I requested a trade from the Ravens organization for which the Ravens has [sic] not been interested in meeting my value.”

His March 2 request thus landed five days before the team’s deadline to place a tag on him and five days before the rush of teams insisting “we’re not going for him.”

It was after Jackson’s apparent trade request that the Ravens eschewed the exclusive tag that NFL bylaws define as “not free to sign with another club” in favor of the tag for which a “player shall be permitted to negotiate a player contract with any club, except that draft-choice compensation of two first-round draft selections shall be made in the event he signs with a new club.”

It was after Jackson’s apparent trade request that the Seattle Seahawks signed Geno Smith to an extension, the New Orleans Saints signed Derek Carr, the Las Vegas Raiders signed Jimmy Garoppolo, and the quarterback-needy Carolina Panthers traded up to grab the first overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.

So while sudden franchise pivots should never be discounted, and the public conversation surrounding the Ravens and Jackson’s widening divide absolutely changed Monday, it’s within the realm of possibility that the Ravens’ stance on trading or compensating their quarterback will not change at all because of his social media activity. It’s also possible that urgency amid deal-makers will not shift.

Harbaugh’s comments sounded much more like the good cop complement to a bad-cop front office negotiating directly with a player than a coach exasperated with major question marks for his offensive leader and the personnel around which his new offensive coordinator should scheme.

“That train is moving fast,” Harbaugh said. “But here’s the thing: When Lamar gets back on board that train, he’s fully capable of jumping on, full speed. Lamar can go.

“So when that train’s moving, he merges in with us, we’re going to be rolling.”

What Harbaugh’s strategy means for Ravens’ next step with Lamar

None of this is to suggest the Ravens and Jackson don’t have serious discontent. The franchise shouldn't underestimate the complications of Jackson’s desire to play elsewhere. And Jackson should be concerned what the Ravens' willingness to let him test the market says about his ability to earn the value he wants and the lengths he may need to go to to achieve them.

Watson sat out a season before earning a fully guaranteed contract. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins played out two franchise tags in Washington before his next team guaranteed him the full value of his deal.

Is Jackson willing to sit out? Does he want to?

The non-exclusive tag allows Jackson to negotiate with other teams but the Ravens still retain ample control with what's currently his only known contract offer, with a starting swap value of two first-rounders, and with the right of refusal by matching any deal.

And Harbaugh seemed ready with a stable of tactics that would guide a reunion, from reiterating his personal love and five-year belief in Jackson to emphasizing the likely league dynamics that are complicating negotiations more than normal.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to this deal that go beyond one player or one team,” Harbaugh said, in comments that felt directly related to the league's stance against fully guaranteed contracts. “They’re pro sports issues with collective bargaining agreements and all that stuff that matters to people. And I think that’s all kind of weaving its way into it.

“It’s a unique situation. But when we get back together — and I'm really hopeful that that happens, that’s what I want to see — it’s going to be great.”

Jackson’s negotiating tactics continue to defy those that his quarterback counterparts most often use. But Harbaugh wisely praised his quarterback’s self-advocacy — “Lamar’s doing a nice job with the negotiations. I think that needs to be said. People need to understand he’s doing a good job … ” — while also reminding listeners that this is not the first time his quarterback has bucked a trend, eschewed traditional league wisdom or disproved those who doubt his ability and its application to the modern NFL.

“He’s been told, not by us obviously because we said he’s our guy, but he’s been told since he was a little kid that he needs to play another position,” Harbaugh said. “All the way back to that, and he’s been firm and stubborn if you want to use that term. He’s been firm that ‘I’m a quarterback and I want to stick to that.’

“So to me the very mindset you’re talking about is the same mindset that’s gotten him to where he’s at as a football player.”

The Ravens similarly used a counterculture mindset selecting Jackson with the final pick of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft after no other team had pounced.

Now, Harbaugh insists a Baltimore offense tweaked to more up-tempo and no-huddle concepts is again being designed to favor Jackson’s skills. So trade request or not, Jackson’s path staying put in Baltimore is clearly visible.

“Lamar’s under contract and of course that’s the guy I want to see be our quarterback. That’s my guy,” Harbaugh said. “I’m excited, thinking about Lamar all the time, thinking about him as our quarterback. We’re building our offense around that idea. I'm just looking forward to getting back to football.

“And confident that’s going to happen.”