Ravens gamble with Lamar Jackson franchise tag

Lamar Jackson, as expected, won’t be an unrestricted free agent when NFL free agency opens next week. 

But in a twist, the MVP quarterback will still be allowed to test the market. 

The Baltimore Ravens utilized the non-exclusive franchise tag Tuesday on Jackson, meaning the 2018 first-rounder can now also negotiate with other teams as he searches for a long-term contract. If Jackson fails to agree to a long-term deal and signs the tag, he’ll return to Baltimore on a one-year, $32.4 million contract. 

Still, it was telling that the Ravens will let Jackson field other offers after months of not being able to extend their star quarterback. The two sides have been unable to strike an agreement as Jackson reportedly seeks a fully guaranteed contract similar to the five-year, $230 million deal that the Cleveland Browns gave to quarterback Deshaun Watson. 

If Jackson signs an offer sheet from another team, the franchise tag allows Baltimore to match the offer — or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation for his departure. 

“Having not yet reached a long-term deal with Lamar Jackson, we will use the franchise tag,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said in a statement. “There have been many instances across the league and in Baltimore when a player has been designated with the franchise tag and signed a long-term deal that same year. 

“We will continue to negotiate in good faith with Lamar, and we are hopeful that we can strike a long-term deal that is fair to both Lamar and the Ravens. Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come.”

With Jackson able to talk to other teams, the main question becomes whether any franchise will be able to successfully lure the quarterback away. Watson’s fully guaranteed contract reportedly became a subject of frustration among NFL owners. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti even told reporters last year that he wished Cleveland hadn’t given a full multi-year guarantee — adding “it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”

But Watson’s contract has yet to lead to massive fully guaranteed contracts for quarterbacks. Denver’s Russell Wilson and Arizona’s Kyler Murray, for example, have since signed new deals without a full guarantee. And on Tuesday, the New York Giants reached a four-year, $160 million extension with quarterback Daniel Jones — who received $82 million guaranteed at signing. 

Jones, like Jackson, was seen as a candidate for the franchise tag, but the two sides ultimately got a deal done in time before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline. 

Complicating matters, Jackson has represented himself throughout this process as he does not have an agent. The quarterback has reportedly received guidance from the players’ union and his mother.

The Ravens, meanwhile, bucked convention by opting to use the non-exclusive franchise tag. For quarterbacks, teams often opt to use the exclusive version of the tag, which prevents players from negotiating elsewhere. Dak Prescott received the exclusive tag from the Dallas Cowboys in 2020, as did Kirk Cousins from Washington in 2017. 

Washington, however, used the non-exclusive version of the tag on Cousins in 2016. That year, Cousins did not seek other offers and accepted the one-year contract immediately. In 2018, as a free agent, he left Washington to sign a three-year, $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings — all of which was guaranteed. 

If Jackson tests the market, he could have a litany of suitors. After all, the 26-year-old is a dynamic star who has excelled at throwing and rushing the ball. The two-time Pro Bowler has had 12 games with at least 100 rushing yards, a record for quarterbacks. And he won the MVP in 2019 after leading the league in passing touchdowns (36) and rushing yards per attempt (6.9). 

But his injury history may also give some teams pause as he’s played in 12 games in each of the last two seasons. He missed the final six weeks of last season, including the playoffs, in part because of a knee injury that he later revealed to be a sprained PCL. 

Jackson was one of six players to be given the franchise tag this year, joining Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, Cowboys running back Tony Pollard, Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Jaguars tight end Evan Engram and Commanders defensive tackle Daron Payne. 

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