The fact that the Ravens placed the franchise tag on Lamar Jackson last week was hardly surprising. The sides had been barreling toward that outcome for the past year as Jackson covets a long-term, fully guaranteed deal, and the Ravens don’t.
But the final outcome was still unexpected. The Ravens opted for the nonexclusive franchise tag over the exclusive one, allowing Jackson to shop his services to the highest bidder (in exchange for two first-round picks to Baltimore) and creating the real possibility that Jackson will no longer be a Raven.
This marks the 12th time since the franchise tag was created in 1993 that it was used on a quarterback, but only the fourth time that a team used the nonexclusive tag. The others were Kirk Cousins in Washington (2016), Matt Cassel in New England (2009), and Drew Brees in San Diego (2005). Cassel was promptly traded to the Chiefs, Brees lasted one final year with the Chargers, and Cousins played under two franchise tags with Washington before leaving via free agency. So history is against the Ravens and Jackson figuring out a long-term solution.
Let’s take a closer look at Jackson’s situation with the Ravens and all of the factors at play:
▪ The Ravens certainly are risking losing their franchise quarterback without having a valid backup plan. Getting two first-round picks in return is a pittance for losing a franchise quarterback.
But if the Ravens do plan on bringing back Jackson, they gained a lot of leverage in contract negotiations by giving him the nonexclusive tag, which carries a salary of $32.416 million, over the exclusive tag, which would have paid Jackson $45 million.
Teams can use the franchise tag on a player in three straight years — the second year comes with a 20 percent raise, and the third year comes with a 44 percent raise. At the exclusive level, the Ravens would have paid Jackson $45 million, $54 million, and $77.8 million with three successive tags for a total of $176.8 million. Instead, at the nonexclusive level, the Ravens are looking at $32.416 million, $38.9 million, and $56 million, for a three-year total of $127.3 million, or about $50 million less.
A three-year deal averaging $42.4 million per year is certainly more palatable than a deal averaging $58.9 million.
▪ Jackson can sign with any of the 32 teams, and has until July 15 to work out a long-term contract extension with the Ravens before he has to play the season on the franchise tag.
What could a contract extension look like? Jackson has been seeking a deal like the five-year, $230 million, fully guaranteed contract signed by Deshaun Watson. So far, he has had little success getting the Ravens or another team to budge, as NFL owners appear adamant about making Watson’s contract an outlier.
If Jackson is willing to come off the full guarantee, he could still strike it rich. Former NFL agent Joel Corry came up with a target for Jackson on a four-year, $210 million deal that includes $150 million fully guaranteed at signing and another $20 million in conditional guarantees.
Jackson wouldn’t get the full guarantee that he is seeking, but the $52.5 million average would vault him ahead of Patrick Mahomes for the richest contract in the NFL.
▪ It is certainly curious that within hours of Jackson getting the tag, a number of teams leaked that they won’t be bidding for Jackson’s services.
It’s understandable that teams such as the Dolphins and Patriots, who have decent quarterbacks on cheap rookie contracts, wouldn’t want to spend $150 million guaranteed and give up two first-round picks to sign Jackson. Or why the 49ers wouldn’t want to make a significant long-term move when they perhaps just need a short-term fix. Or why the Panthers would want to trade up to No. 1 to draft a cheap rookie instead of spending nine figures on Jackson.
But it doesn’t make much sense for teams such as the Colts, Falcons, and Commanders to not be heavily interested in Jackson. They have no quarterbacks to speak of, and their draft picks are low enough that they likely won’t have a shot at the top one or two prospects. Jackson would make any of those teams instant contenders.
The ownership situation in Washington could potentially keep the Commanders from making a play. It’s hard seeing Dan Snyder putting up $170 million in escrow when he doesn’t know if he’s going to own the team next season. But the Falcons and Colts have no excuse not to be involved in the Jackson bidding, and if they don’t, it will only fuel the notion that NFL teams are colluding against Jackson. Two first-round picks and a pile of cash is still a small price to pay to get a 26-year-old franchise quarterback.
Of course, the denials don’t mean much unless they are coming directly from the owner. The Browns weren’t in on Watson, either, until the owner got involved and decided it was a deal he had to make. So just because there’s no interest now doesn’t mean there won’t be later.
▪ But before we accuse the other 31 teams of collusion, it’s important to take context into account. In 30 years of the NFL franchise tag, only one player who got the tag has signed with another team: Sean Gilbert in 1998, who was tagged by Washington and then signed with Carolina. It simply doesn’t happen, whether teams are wary of giving up the two first-round picks, or don’t want to set the precedent of signing away another team’s franchise player.
▪ There’s also a growing sentiment that the Ravens are going to match any offer that Jackson receives on the open market. In that case, there may be a hesitancy from teams to negotiate seriously with Jackson, out of fear that they’re really just negotiating for the Ravens.
“That’s a very real thing,” Corry tweeted. “When [I] was an agent & had [restricted free agents], I used to hear from teams they didn’t want to do someone else’s deal for them.”
▪ Finally, the fact that Jackson doesn’t have an agent is making the matter more complicated. He is getting advice and counsel from the NFL Players Association, with DeMaurice Smith taking up Jackson’s cause to push for the precedent of a fully guaranteed contract. But Jackson is navigating the most complex and important negotiation of his career without a paid professional working directly on his behalf.
The agent could be using his contacts throughout the league and with media to help Jackson establish a market for himself. Instead, Jackson is going at it alone, and having a tricky time getting the Ravens to budge or for another team to show major interest. Jackson is also creating hard feelings between him and the team by negotiating directly instead of having an intermediary do it.
Jackson is saving 2-3 percent of his contract by not having an agent, but may be costing himself millions.
CASH AND CARRY
Running backs head to the bank
Running back is a position that has become increasingly devalued across the NFL because of its high injury risk and abundance of available talent. Not only does the position rarely get drafted in the first round anymore, it also rarely gets the franchise tag. Before last week, the franchise tag had been used on a running back just 10 times in 30 years. The most recent were Derrick Henry in 2020, Le’Veon Bell in 2017-18, and Matt Forte and Ray Rice in 2012.
This year, however, marked the first time that three running backs got the franchise tag: the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley, and the Cowboys’ Tony Pollard. They received the non-exclusive tag, which allows them to negotiate with other teams, but as stated above, that never happens in the NFL. Instead, they will return to their teams on a one-year guaranteed salary of $10.091 million.
It’s a decent chunk of money to spend on a running back — the players now rank ninth at their position for average annual salary — but the one-year investment is still decent value. Jacobs’s salary will represent about 4.5 percent of the Raiders’ salary cap, but that seems like small potatoes for a guy who had 33 percent of the Raiders’ total yards (2,053), 50 percent of their offensive touches (393), and 30 percent of their touchdowns (12) last year.
Only six players this year got the franchise tag, and three were running backs. It shows that there still is value in the position — not much long-term value, but plenty in the short term. Jacobs, Barkley, and Pollard are all a big part of their team’s plans for 2023 and well worth the one-year investment.
Where the teams will go astray is if they try to sign Jacobs, Barkley, and Pollard to long-term extensions. Anything more than a two-year guarantee will be bad for business.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW . . .
Deshaun Watson’s deal deserves another look
Deshaun Watson’s contract, signed last March, was the biggest whopper the NFL has ever seen: $230 million over five years, with every penny guaranteed.
Yet it’s fair to wonder if the Browns have a little regret over the entire deal. Not only is owner Jimmy Haslam now a pariah among his fellow owners, but Watson’s first season in Cleveland was underwhelming, to say the least.
Playing in six games following an 11-game suspension, Watson threw for just 184 yards per game, with 7 touchdown passes, 5 interceptions, a 58.2 completion percentage, and 6.5 yards per attempt for a 79.1 passer rating that ranked 36th out of 47 quarterbacks who had at least 100 pass attempts. All the marks are by far the worst of Watson’s five NFL seasons, while Watson made $45.4 million.
To be fair, Watson hadn’t played in almost two years after sitting out the 2021 season, and getting thrust into the lineup in the first week of December with an entirely new cast of teammates isn’t easy. I asked general manager Andrew Berry at the NFL Combine if the Browns have any regrets in signing Watson, and he, of course, gave the company line.
“We’re very excited about Deshaun,” Berry said. “We are looking forward to continuing to evolve the offense over the next several months, obviously having him have a full offseason going into 2023, and certainly expect him to play at a high level.”
What else can Berry say? The Browns are stuck with Watson for the next four years.
Will DeAndre Hopkins catch on with Patriots?
One name Patriots fans need to keep an eye on is Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He is seemingly on the trade block as the Cardinals start fresh with a new coach and GM, and the Patriots make all kinds of sense: They need a No. 1 receiver, Bill Belichick has long respected Hopkins’s game, and the Patriots have all the inside info they need on Hopkins with new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who was his coach for seven years in Houston.
O’Brien traded Hopkins to Arizona and they did not part on great terms, but mending the relationship doesn’t seem too difficult if both the Patriots and Hopkins determine that a union is best for all sides.
The cost, though, could throw a wrench in the plans. Hopkins made $43 million in 2020-21 with the Cardinals ($21.5 million average), yet made $15 million last year and is on the books for $19.45 million this year. Hopkins didn’t have an agent when he signed his contract in 2020, but he said last week on “The Pat McAfee Show” that he changed tactics this time.
“I went out and hired my lawyer, who’s an agent, who’s going to help me not get the short end of the stick,” Hopkins said.
Though Hopkins turns 31 in June, and missed 15 games the last two years with hamstring and knee injuries and a six-game PED suspension, he still can produce. Hopkins averaged 79.7 yards per game last year, in line with his career average, even though he played just five games with Kyler Murray. But if he insists on a new contract that pays him more than $20 million per year, the Patriots have never shelled out anywhere close to that much money for a receiver.
Within a half-hour of the Bills’ loss to the Bengals in the AFC playoffs in January, a league source close to several Bills players texted, “Make sure you tell people that it was Sean McDermott’s defense, not Leslie Frazier’s.” The Bills moved on from Frazier, their defensive coordinator since 2017, this offseason and couched it as Frazier wanting to take a year off from coaching. But it’s hard to see it as anything other than scapegoating Frazier, even though the Bills’ defense finished second in points allowed in 2022, and top two in three of the past four years. The point from the source was that Frazier may have been DC, but he was running McDermott’s defensive scheme, which was far different from the “quarters” scheme Frazier ran for years in Minnesota. “I can’t lie this one hurt,” tweeted Bills pass rusher Shaq Lawson . . . With the Jets seemingly on the verge of landing Aaron Rodgers, it’s worth noting that the Jets are one of four teams eligible for “Hard Knocks” this training camp. The criteria are: No appearance on the show within 10 years, a coach that isn’t in his first year, and a team that didn’t make the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The Bears, Saints, and Commanders are also eligible . . . Could be a big week for the Edmunds family, with Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds and Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds both set to hit free agency. Terrell is older by a year and both are former first-round picks . . . The Patriots are in a tricky spot with Brian Hoyer, whom they are expected to release. He has a base salary of $1.6 million in 2023, and $1.4 million of it is fully guaranteed. They don’t owe him that money if he retires, and their obligation would be reduced if Hoyer signs with another team. But if he doesn’t retire, he can sit at home and collect $1.4 million . . . The 49ers gained a whopping seven compensatory draft picks – picks 99, 101, and 102 at the end of the third round, plus extra picks at the end of the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds (two picks). Three of the compensatory picks are for the 49ers losing minority coach/GM candidates Ran Carthon, Mike McDaniel, and DeMeco Ryans as part of the Rooney Rule . . . When a handful of head coaches skipped the NFL Combine this year, it signaled that the event is losing popularity. Now the TV numbers are in, and they weren’t pretty: the event averaged just 219,000 viewers per SportsMediaWatch.com, and peaked at 329,000 viewers on Saturday for the quarterbacks, receivers, and tight ends. The Combine may never be must-see-TV, but if the NFL wants coaches to take the event seriously again, it should start free agency on the Monday or Tuesday immediately following the combine like in the old days. That would at least ensure that the coaches show up to Indianapolis, to at least participate in free agency meetings.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.