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As Lamar Jackson’s franchise tag answers one question for Ravens, it poses others to the NFL as a whole

The Baltimore Ravens made their decision Tuesday afternoon: to assign quarterback Lamar Jackson with a non-exclusive, rather than exclusive, franchise tag. Its implication — a roughly $13 million cheaper salary in exchange for allowing Jackson to negotiate potential deals with other teams — prompted a chorus of opinions across the league to flow freely.

“Not in the Lamar business,” a league source with knowledge of the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback plans told Yahoo Sports on condition of anonymity.

“Thinking he might be out of our price range,” wrote another league source with knowledge of the Carolina Panthers’ plans.

Quarterback-needy and quarterback-settled teams alike seemed to echo similar concerns: Could a recently injured quarterback whose game factors in the run so heavily stay healthy enough to justify the monster contract he seeks?

An NFC source whose team is expected to upgrade at quarterback this offseason praised Jackson as a player whom “any team would be lucky to be involved with” — before a colleague on the same team told Yahoo Sports they expect to instead pursue their quarterback fix via the far cheaper route of a passer-rich draft.

It’s important to distinguish between what teams are and aren’t saying, and what they are and aren’t weighing, in an emotionally charged time. To suggest that Jackson isn’t a game-changing player who resoundingly earned his 2019 season MVP award would be absurd. Similarly, to suggest his recent injuries indicate he has aged beyond the realm of effective and highly impactful quarterback play misrepresents the dynamic that has surfaced. Jackson led the Ravens to an 8-4 record when healthy in 2022, accounting for 212.9 yards from scrimmage per game en route to 20 total touchdowns with nine turnovers in 12 games. The Ravens went 2-4 without him from Week 14 on, including losing their playoff game.

So the sticking point that reached a crescendo after the Ravens played their latest card seems to speak less to whether Jackson is worth a hefty contract and more to a debate that reignited last spring: Can NFL players, like their counterparts in other major pro sports leagues, command fully guaranteed contracts?

Tuesday's developments cast doubts on that impending likelihood.

Lamar Jackson's situation is about to tell us a whole lot about guaranteed mega-contracts in the NFL. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Lamar Jackson's situation is about to tell us a whole lot about guaranteed mega-contracts in the NFL. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

“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,” Baltimore general manager and executive vice president Eric DeCosta said in a statement. “Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come.”

But with a non-exclusive tag, did the Ravens move toward or away from that goal?

Ravens on full guarantees: ‘Damn, I wish they hadn’t’

The continued standoff seems to stem from a dynamic that ESPN reported last September and that Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson has confirmed in recent weeks: that Jackson wants a fully guaranteed contract.

The two-time Pro Bowler, who had not yet turned 26 years old, had thus reportedly declined a five-year extension offer worth over $250 million with $133 million guaranteed at signing.

It was asked then as it is now: What is Jackson worth?

When accounting for the somewhat disturbing reality of trying to assign a “price” to any human’s worth, why don’t we instead ask: Does the current NFL landscape and quarterback market suggest Jackson warrants a fully guaranteed second contract?

Before March 2022, the idea was nearly preposterous. At that point, only once had an NFL quarterback and agent successfully secured a multiyear, fully guaranteed contract: Kirk Cousins, to whom the Minnesota Vikings signed to a three-year, $84 million contract in 2018. Cousins’ agent Mike McCartney had navigated his client through two years of fully guaranteed franchise tags in Washington before creating unusual leverage to set this up.

He and Cousins had weighed maximizing potential earnings against ensuring a still-extremely-lucrative payday that could be further augmented as salary cap hits pressured the Vikings to renegotiate regularly. (They indeed renegotiated an extension before the third season.)

In March 2022, the second rare set of circumstances arose when multiple teams bid on a then-26-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl quarterback who was demanding his team trade him. Deshaun Watson’s circumstances were further complicated by two dozen concurrent lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions.

The Cleveland Browns were committed to winning the Watson war sufficiently enough to award him a fully guaranteed five-year deal worth $230 million.

“Damn, I wish they hadn’t guaranteed that whole contract,” Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti admitted later that month. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to play that game.”

Nearly a year later, the Ravens haven’t.

What could come next for Lamar

The Ravens are the rule, rather than the exception, in their aversion to a fully guaranteed deal.

Since the Browns signed Watson, NFL teams have paid expensive but only partially guaranteed quarterback contracts to the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson, New Orleans Saints’ Derek Carr, Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith and New York Giants’ Daniel Jones.

So who might be willing to make the splash to pay Jackson what he wants?

An Atlanta Falcons source was firm in telling Yahoo Sports the team isn't in play for Lamar Jackson. Other teams might not feel so strongly. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
An Atlanta Falcons source was firm in telling Yahoo Sports the team isn't in play for Lamar Jackson. Other teams might not feel so strongly. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Teams without sufficient draft capital to trade up for a top 2023 rookie quarterback that would cost far less, perhaps.

Moving parts with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo figure to factor into the musical-chairs game as well.

One high-ranking team executive told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that acquiring Jackson creates more on-field scheme challenges than Watson due to Jackson’s far heavier reliance on the run. Watson has passed on 84.8% percent of his career touches, compared to Jackson’s 69.5%. While Jackson is undoubtedly electric with his legs — he averaged 6.8 yards per carry last season — executing that style of offense demands the appropriate buy-in from an offensive coordinator, system and surrounding personnel. Quarterbacks like the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow or Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, whose styles “transcend any environment” with a historically longer shelf life than the punishing blows a running quarterback withstands, more closely reflect Watson’s scheme fit, the executive said.

Which led the executive to wonder: Even after the prolonged discord, might the Ravens be the most likely team to land Jackson?

“In my heart of hearts, I think they’re probably in a decent spot,” the executive said, believing that the tag choice might further irritate a duo “drifting apart already” but was unlikely to meaningfully impact a negotiation period going on two years.

The Ravens hope that too, if DeCosta’s statement was any indication.

“There have been many instances across the league and in Baltimore,” he said, “when a player has been designated with the franchise tag and signed a long-term deal that same year.”