Why Can't Lamar Jackson Find The Contract He Wants?
You'd think a recent MVP quarterback would have a stronger market — or any market, really.
It wasn’t too long ago that we wrote about the Baltimore Ravens building an unconventional offense around a dual-threat quarterback. With Lamar Jackson under center, the Ravens deviated from the pass-happy spread offenses that most NFL teams use, instead using an offense that largely relied on the run game from heavy formations. And that decision paid off.
Baltimore finished the 2019 season with the best record in the NFL, while also boasting the league’s top rushing attack and scoring offense. In his first season as a full-time starter, Jackson earned the unanimous vote for MVP honors. That production led many to believe that the team had found the system and the quarterback it could build around for years to come.
But now, it appears that Jackson’s run with the Ravens could be heading for a shockingly premature conclusion. On Tuesday, Jackson announced via Twitter that he requested a trade earlier in the month — citing the team’s lack of interest in “meeting [his] value.” This announcement came just three weeks after the team placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on the quarterback — meaning Jackson is able to pursue a contract with other teams, but if he finds a new deal elsewhere and Baltimore decides not to match it, that team must also send two first-round picks to the Ravens.
While there’s still a chance that both sides can land on terms that everybody agrees to — and head coach John Harbaugh said in an interview at the NFL owners meeting that he is “confident” that Jackson will remain the team’s quarterback — this situation continues to grow more complicated, raising a pair of big questions. If an organization is interested in acquiring Jackson, what exactly would it be getting? And what are the concerns that could cause a front office to think twice about making a move for the former league MVP?
When teams take a look at bringing Jackson into the fold, the discussion almost certainly starts with his performance and accolades from that huge 2019 season. Time after time, we’ve seen that when organizations look at making a big move at quarterback, they fall in love with what a player has shown he could be at his best, putting less focus on their more recent history. So, it only makes sense that a team would start with one of the best individual seasons by a quarterback the league has seen.
Earning enough votes to win an NFL MVP race is hard enough to do. But playing so well that you leave no doubt in any voter’s mind about who the best player was might just be the toughest task in the league, and Jackson did that at just 22 years old. The only other player to do so in league history is the GOAT, Tom Brady. That’s elite company. But it made sense, as Jackson led the league in passing TDs, ranked third in passer rating and set the record for the most rushing yards by a QB in a single season with 1,206.
Although his style is certainly different from what we see out of other quarterbacks across the league, Jackson continued his high-level play in the seasons that followed. Since the 2020 season, he has recorded over 2,500 rushing yards. Only 10 other players in the league have managed to do that — and none of them play quarterback. Jackson has recorded more rushing yards in the past three seasons than Joe Mixon (2,447), Austin Ekeler (2,356) and Saquon Barkley (1,939), and he did it on at least 70 fewer carries than each of them.
Not only has Jackson been one of the NFL’s best at gaining yards on the ground during that span, he also has easily been the league’s most efficient rusher. Jackson’s 6.3 yards per carry leads the league, by a fairly wide margin; Nick Chubb ranks second with 5.3.
The biggest knock on Jackson’s play has been his passing ability. However, he has been a much better passer than he gets credit for. Since leading the league in Total QBR (83.0) during his MVP season, Jackson ranks ninth in QBR (61.1). And he has finished among the top 10 in passing TD percentage in two of the past three seasons (tied for No. 3 in 2020 and No. 7 in 2022).
Most importantly, though, Jackson has been a winner. So much so, that even having him as your starting quarterback nearly guarantees your team a spot in the postseason. The former Heisman Trophy-winning QB led Baltimore to three consecutive playoff appearances from 2018 to 2020 and was on pace to lead the team to the playoffs again in both the 2021 and 2022 seasons before being sidelined by injury.
Since entering the league in 2018, Jackson ranks sixth in total wins (including playoffs), and his 73.8 winning percentage is the third-highest among quarterbacks. The only QBs with a higher winning percentage over that span1 are Patrick Mahomes (79.7 percent) and Drew Brees (78.9 percent). Moreover, there is a massive differential between the Ravens’ success rate with Jackson versus without. In all games he didn’t start during that period, Baltimore had just a 38.1 winning percentage. Among franchises with a sample of 20 starts both with and without a QB since 2018, that 35.7-point winning percentage gap is by far the biggest in the NFL:
These are all strong selling points for a young, historically great player — a 26-year-old who may not have even hit his prime yet — looking to change teams. (Or, strong buying points for a team looking to acquire a franchise quarterback.) So why have so few teams — almost literally none2 — expressed interest in making a move for him?
In the NFL, when an organization decides how much to offer a player, it isn’t basing that value on what that player has already accomplished. Instead, contracts reflect what an organization believes the player can accomplish going forward. And in Jackson’s case, that notion presents two clear problems from an organization’s perspective regarding his long-term future.
First, is the “how much.” The assumption has been that Jackson is looking for a fully guaranteed contract similar to Deshaun Watson’s $230 million deal with the Cleveland Browns last offseason. But the sense around the league is that most, if not all, owners don’t have an interest in signing players to fully guaranteed contracts. During the NFL owners meeting, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay even straight-up said he “doesn’t believe in fully guaranteed contracts.”
Plus, in addition to allocating over 20 percent of the team’s salary cap to Jackson, it must also send multiple picks and/or players to Baltimore depending on how his new team acquires him.
The second factor, and likely the most difficult one, is the projection of what Jackson can accomplish going forward. Simply put, Jackson’s future is hard to predict. And there’s reason to believe that the same game-breaking skill that has made Jackson so successful in the NFL — his running ability — could ultimately be the biggest thing that’s keeping him from scoring that big contract he is supposedly seeking.
Although Jackson has yet to be injured on a rushing play or while scrambling, he has taken plenty of hits — certainly more than the league average for a quarterback. In addition to his 132 career sacks (16th-most since 2018), Jackson has recorded 727 carries since entering the league, the 20th-most among all players and easily the most among anyone who isn’t a running back.3
So, while it’s hard to know exactly how many of those rushes ended in him being tackled versus sliding or running out of bounds, we do know that if even a quarter of those carries ended with tackles, that’s an additional 181 hits that Jackson’s body has taken.
No matter how big the hits may have been, they all add up. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank acknowledged that risk when asked about the chance to add Jackson at the NFL owners meeting.
“Looking at it objectively, I’d say there’s some concern over how long he can play his style of game,” Blank said. “Hopefully a long time ... but he’s missed five, six games each of the last two years.”
Even though Jackson hasn’t gotten hurt while running the ball, he has missed the end of the past two seasons due to injury. When we’re talking about paying a player so much guaranteed money, it’s fair for an organization to want its most expensive guy to be available during the most important stretch of the NFL schedule (the end of the season, and hopefully, the playoffs).
In his defense, Jackson took to social media to push back on those injury concerns this week. “Let’s get real,” Jackson tweeted, questioning why he was being considered selfish for not returning early from injury and playing poorly. “[I’d] rather have a 100% PCL than go out there and play horrible, forcing myself to put my guys in a bad situation.”
Either way, prior to this situation, Jackson was already one of the most electrifying players in the league whenever he was on the field. Now, his name is generating an equal amount of buzz off the field, too. All eyes across the NFL will be on Jackson and the Ravens this offseason as we watch his contract drama play out, especially when we consider that the next crop of top-tier quarterbacks due to sign new contracts in the near future might use Jackson’s situation as a template — or as a cautionary tale.