The Baltimore Ravens Big Gamble
The Baltimore Ravens just made the riskiest move in franchise history.
Hiring a Special Teams and Defensive Backs Coach to replace a Super Bowl winner and lead the team through the last stage of Ray Lewis’ career now looks like the easiest decision in sports history. Putting the Super Bowl in the hands of their punter in their own end zone is now child’s play.
The Ravens gave quarterback Lamar Jackson the non-exclusive franchise tag, designated at around $32 million, meaning he is now free to negotiate with other teams and sign an offer sheet.
If he agrees to a deal with another team, the Ravens will then get to choose whether they want to match the deal and bring Jackson back to Baltimore or whether they will let him walk in exchange for two first-round picks.
The Baltimore Ravens Big Bet
While there is logic to signing Jackson to the non-exclusive tag as opposed to the exclusive tag, which would bind him to Baltimore for one year at a $45 million annual price, the Ravens are taking a massive risk in giving Jackson an opening to negotiate with other teams.
In giving Jackson this freedom, Baltimore is banking on a belief that no other team will give Jackson the fully guaranteed deal that he reportedly desires, and that once Jackson sees what his market looks like he will maybe then be more willing to compromise.
This could quite possibly be the case. The general sentiment around the league seems to be that the deal the Browns gave Deshaun Watson was an outlier, and based on the past history of NFL owners, it is extremely reasonable for the Ravens to conclude that everyone will collude to not make fully guaranteed deals the new normal.
Indeed, multiple teams have already said that they are not planning to pursue him, indicating that the Ravens might be working on solid intel for the moment.
The question becomes whether that will remain the case. Every NFL team currently has their offseason perfectly planned out, but no major quarterback dominos have fallen yet.
If football history has shown one thing, it is that desperate teams will always overpay for a quarterback, with the Broncos giving everything up for Russell Wilson after missing out on a potential Aaron Rodgers trade being perhaps the most recent example.
The Ravens may be confident that no one would give Jackson a fully guaranteed contract at the current moment, but what happens if the Jets miss out on Aaron Rodgers? What happens if the Panthers are unable to trade up in the draft, and Frank Reich becomes at risk of spending yet another year coaching a veteran stopgap? What happens in Miami if Tua Tagovailoa’s health does not progress, and known tamperer Stephen Ross decides to spend some more money?
The Ravens cannot just be confident that the market does not exist for Jackson’s demands, they have to be 1000% sure, and in an ever-changing league like the NFL that is a near impossibility.
Even if the Ravens decide to match any deal that those teams decide to give Jackson, they would have less control over the structure of the deal, meaning they would have less control over the necessary ensuing roster moves.
If their plan is to match any deal, the Ravens should have just given Jackson what he wanted in the first place, because if Jackson is truly being as stubborn as the reports say he is, he will only sign an offer sheet with similar guarantees to what he wanted from the Ravens.
The biggest threat to the Ravens being able to match a deal would be if the Falcons change their mind.
They are the one team without a starting quarterback and an owner who has shown a willingness to spend money that also has the cap space to structure a contract to include a high first-year cap hit that would make it almost physically impossible for the Ravens to match.
If Atlanta changes their mind, it could be game over for Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.
Lamar Jackson’s Future in Baltimore
While it seems counter-intuitive, giving Jackson the non-exclusive tag indicates that the Ravens are planning on Jackson being their starting quarterback in 2023.
If they were truly prepared to let Jackson leave, they would have given him the exclusive tag and shopped him on the trade market, as recent quarterback trade history indicates that the compensation for Jackson would be a lot more than the two first-round picks the Ravens would net if they decide to not match an offer sheet.
In addition, allowing Jackson to explore the open market does accelerate the negotiation process, as it allows him to see what other teams would be willing to offer him and compare it to Baltimore’s offers.
But while it may increase the odds of the Ravens locking in Jackson for the long term, it also takes away complete control over Jackson’s future.
This is no longer a negotiation where the Ravens need to be reasonable, this is a prediction where they need to be right.
If they are correct in their prognostication of other teams’ plans, and the market does indeed serve as a mediator in helping to secure a long-term deal in Baltimore, this decision will go down as one of the great pieces of negotiation in recent sports history.
But if they are wrong, then Eric DeCosta will forever be remembered as the man who lost Lamar Jackson for pennies on the dollar.