Back in June, when Lamar Jackson finally addressed the mystery surrounding his languishing contract talks with the Baltimore Ravens, he suggested the most jaw-dropping pact in NFL history — the extension between Deshaun Watson and the Cleveland Browns — had no bearing on his situation.
“I’m a man of my own,” Jackson said. “I don’t worry about what those guys get.”
On Friday, Jackson became a man on his own.
No contract extension with the Ravens. No guaranteed money beyond 2022. No protections against catastrophic injury. And perhaps most glaring of all, no absolute certainty that this gamble will favorably work out in the end for the 25-year-old former league MVP. In the history of dice rolls for an NFL player, this is arguably the riskiest ever taken. It has a monumental spectrum of possible outcomes, from Jackson eventually landing the richest extension that pro football has ever seen, to the possibility of a serious injury or season that changes the entire trajectory of his next contract.
All of this is on the table now. And the idea that Watson’s deal had nothing to do with it is absurdly unbelievable.
Can Lamar Jackson follow similar path of Cousins, Prescott and Rodgers?
In a league where leverage creates kings, it would be foolish to believe that Jackson isn’t factoring the fully guaranteed $230 million contract Watson signed or the circumstances that ultimately secured such an immense bag. The very nature of Jackson “betting on himself” now demands him to think of Watson’s contract. What’s the use of betting on yourself if you’re not considering the windfall attained by the select few quarterbacks who transformed their leverage into league-shaping and life-changing contracts?
Kirk Cousins played through two franchise tags in Washington and then forced himself into free agency at 29 years old. The payoff was a solid quarterback in the middle of his prime setting up a staggering financial path for the remainder of his career. First with a three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed deal with the Minnesota Vikings, then with a series of extensions that will eventually result in Cousins likely retiring someday with nearly $250 million in career earnings.
Dak Prescott played through one franchise tag with the Dallas Cowboys after turning down contract extensions in consecutive offseasons. With team owner Jerry Jones facing the abyss of starting over at the quarterback position, Prescott transformed his leverage into a four-year, $160 million deal (with $126 million guaranteed) that makes him eligible for free agency at age 31. If Prescott’s productivity stays at its current level and he plays into at least his late 30s, it’s possible he could reach $500 million in career earnings by retirement.
Aaron Rodgers structured his previous extension to put the Green Bay Packers into a crossroads following the 2021 season. Either they would need to sign him to a new deal, trade him away or blow up parts of the team by retaining him and carrying his salary-cap charge of $46.7 million in 2022. The result: Rodgers signed a three-year deal for nearly $151 million, with more than $101 million guaranteed. If he plays out the next three seasons, he’ll land close to $350 million in career earnings. There’s also another $112 million stuffed into a pair of option years in 2025 and 2026, if he’s inclined to play until he’s 43. That seems unlikely, but if it happens, Rodgers' career earnings would top $450 million.
As impressive as that trio stands in the pantheon of contract negotiations, it was Watson who became the sledgehammer this offseason. Not only did he generate a shocking amount of leverage by simply sitting out the 2021 season and pressing his “no trade” clause, he played his trade availability perfectly — "eliminating" the Browns early enough in the process to give the franchise time to meet his astronomical demands.
Despite the massive significance of off-field litigation and sexual assault and misconduct allegations that were attached to him, Watson’s wildly odd set of circumstances — combined with the Browns' desperation — helped him generate arguably more contract leverage than any player before him. And the ultimate result was a deal that was bound to eventually create problems in a quarterback negotiation, even if players like the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson weren’t willing to use Watson’s deal as a template for their own extensions.
What did Jackson turn down?
In reality, it will always be in the hands of elite quarterbacks and their agents when it comes to walking in the footsteps of the Watson deal. While Murray and Wilson were able to up the ante in terms of guaranteed money, neither took the bigger risk of playing out their deals to achieve maximum leverage. Jackson is taking the step that Murray and Wilson didn’t. If the end goal of that move isn’t to secure guaranteed money similar to Watson, then why take the added risk?
The sensible answer is don’t.
The deal that was on the table when talks broke off Friday was an extension that, according to a league source, would have made Jackson the second-highest paid player in the NFL, with guaranteed money exceeded only by Watson. For Jackson to decline that kind of deal is a strong statement, one that says he’s looking to step over everyone when this is all over, not just everyone other than Watson. If that’s the goal, then the inability to reach an extension Friday makes sense.
Consider that Jackson’s lack of an agent streamlines his decision-making process in a way that is drastically different from the other elite quarterbacks who signed deals. If Jackson is open to playing through significant risk, there isn’t an agent’s voice in his ear reminding him of what he stands to lose in the next six months. Then consider that Jackson is now one season from reaching the first significant milestone event that dramatically changed the landscape for Cousins and Prescott: Forcing his team to use a franchise tag in 2023. And not just any tag, either. In all likelihood, the Ravens will use an exclusive tag, keeping Jackson from talking to any other teams and placing his 2023 payout at the average of the top five quarterback salaries in the league (a range that is currently between $45 million and $50 million).
That would stand as the biggest single-season cap hit taken by a team under the franchise tag. And when you add the 20-percent pay bump for a second tag in 2024, it amounts to gargantuan leverage, the kind that ultimately gets a player whatever deal he's looking for.
This is the track Jackson is on with the Ravens. In the rearview mirror of some other elite quarterback deals achieved through leverage, it should look familiar. All Jackson has to do now is stay healthy and play to his ceiling. If he does that, he will certainly be a man of his own.
With a paycheck that stands far apart, too.