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Tribune News Service
Hayes Gardner

Pay him or trade him? Ravens must make decision as contract negotiations with star Lamar Jackson restart.

As hard as he’s been to touch his entire career, dodging linemen and linebackers alike, Lamar Jackson and the answers to the questions surrounding his future have been just as elusive in recent weeks.

The Ravens cleaned out their lockers last week while members of the media milled about, but the man everyone wanted to talk to was nowhere to be found. He hadn’t been in Cincinnati the night before, either, as the Ravens’ season ended in the playoffs.

Coach John Harbaugh and general manager Eric DeCosta sought to put to bed questions about Jackson’s status with the team late last week at an end-of-season news conference, verbally committing to Jackson as the Ravens’ quarterback of the present and future. DeCosta spoke confidently about signing a long-term deal with Jackson, using the word “when” (as opposed to “if”) in doing so.

But until there is a contractual commitment, skepticism will continue.

Jackson, a fan favorite since his Ravens debut in 2018, remains one of the most dynamic and coveted football players on the planet. But his future in Baltimore is in jeopardy as a disconnect between him and the club appears to linger.

The only Raven ever to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award could be traded away from the only pro team he’s ever known.

The Ravens’ season officially concluded Jan. 15 against the Bengals in the first round of the NFL playoffs, but the beginning of the end was Dec. 4, when Jackson left a game against the Denver Broncos with a left knee injury. Harbaugh said after that game that the injury was not season-ending and that Jackson would soon be back in action.

Reports later in December echoed that sentiment, suggesting Jackson would return quickly. But with each passing week and Jackson’s continued absence from practices and games, the Ravens’ season slowly unraveled.

As the playoffs approached, Jackson tweeted an update about his injury: It was a Grade 2 sprain in his PCL, a ligament that connects the thighbone to the shinbone, and he wouldn’t be able to play in the team’s postseason game. Harbaugh said at the time that he was unaware Jackson was going to share the update and hadn’t “paid much attention” to the team’s best player publicly disclosing his injury for the first time.

The original optimism was gone. Reports of Jackson’s return were greatly exaggerated. He did not play and, despite a surprisingly strong performance in the AFC wild-card round, the Ravens did not win.

Baltimore now heads into its most important offseason in years. In addition to filling roster needs such as wide receiver and cornerback and hiring a new offensive coordinator after the team and Greg Roman separated, the Ravens must make a dollars-and-cents decision about the face of the franchise.

Jackson earned about $10 million over his first four years with the Ravens — a bargain for a player of his caliber — because he was on his rookie contract (as all drafted players are, per the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement). This past year, he made $23 million, still a discount deal as far as top-flight NFL quarterbacks go.

But going forward, Jackson will fetch much more.

The Cleveland Browns last year agreed to a five-year contract worth $230 million with quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has been accused of sexual harassment by dozens of women. That contract, which averages $46 million a year, is fully guaranteed, an unprecedented move meaning that, regardless of injury, he will receive each dollar.

Jackson reportedly sought a similarly guaranteed deal this past offseason, but he and the Ravens did not come to an agreement. DeCosta, who said he’d spent time Thursday with Jackson, said he was “excited to start up negotiations again,” but declined to provide specifics.

Skeptics of Watson’s fully guaranteed contract included Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.

“I don’t know that [Watson] should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract,” he told reporters last year. “To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”

Therein lies a disconnect. Jackson might want a contract like Watson’s, but the Ravens might not believe any player, much less one who has recently faced injuries, is worth such an investment.

Jackson, who set records and won the MVP in 2019 and was again outstanding in 2020, did not finish each of the past two seasons after suffering injuries.

Some pundits have hypothesized that, because he was not under a long-term contract this past season, Jackson was not eager to return to play after his knee injury due to self-preservation. (DeCosta downplayed that: “I think Lamar was hurt.”)

Muddying matters are Jackson’s recent Instagram posts. He shared a picture of himself last week in a Ravens uniform with his back to the camera, but also reposted a quote from another user: “When you have something good, you don’t play with it. You don’t take chances losing it. You don’t neglect it,” it began. He reposted another user Thursday who showed off Jackson apparel with the caption: “Ravens pay him today!”

In lieu of public comments, Jackson’s posts have left fans to debate and talking heads to study the tea leaves.

Early this season, when Jackson was healthy and playing like an MVP candidate, fans supported him receiving a lucrative contract. After an October game in Tampa, Florida, one dropped a sign reading “Pay ‘Em Now.” Jackson picked up the sign, held it aloft, autographed it and returned it.

But sentiment shifted a bit as Jackson was less impressive in the second half of the season and then sat with an injury while the Ravens faltered down the stretch.

Fans were dispirited by the season’s denouement. Few traveled to Cincinnati for the playoff game and a near-unanimous chorus blamed Roman, a persona non grata in the eyes of fans, for the team’s woes.

“I don’t think I know one person who doesn’t want Roman gone,” Tanner Wolfe, a 21-year-old Carroll County man who runs the Instagram fan account @everyday_ravens, said a day before the coordinator departed.

Now, fans are divided as to whether the team should invest in Jackson or trade him.

“It’s about split,” Wolfe said. “There are a lot of arguments in my comments about it.”

The Ravens and Jackson have until March 7 to agree to a long-term deal, which would likely be the most lucrative contract in Baltimore pro sports history. If no agreement is reached, the Ravens will likely assign Jackson the exclusive “franchise tag,” a designation allowing them to keep Jackson on a one-year deal for a premium salary — in this case, about $45 million — to prevent him from reaching free agency and the open market. If tagged, Jackson and the Ravens would then have until July 15 to agree to an extension.

Or, the Ravens could assign the tag to Jackson and enter a brave new world by trading him to one of the several NFL teams eager to add him to their roster. Baltimore could then use the (likely many) acquired draft picks to select a rookie quarterback or sign another one.

“That’s something that we’re not going to talk about at this point,” DeCosta said Thursday of trading Jackson. “Our focus right now is really to get a long-term deal done. That’s our singular focus.”

Jackson’s teammates have voiced their support for him and Harbaugh and DeCosta made it clear they are not just hopeful, but confident, that they can reach a deal with the star. But until their verbal commitments turn into a contract, they may be viewed as platitudes rather than promises.

Baltimore’s most wins ever (14) in the regular season came in 2019, the year that Jackson won MVP and demonstrated that he could be every bit as good as a pro as he was in college, when he won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Louisville. The Ravens had the best record in the AFC that season, but they also had the benefit of an elite quarterback on a budget. Jackson, still on his rookie contract, earned just over $2 million.

Having a strong performer getting paid under-market value makes for a “surplus” at that position, said Eric Eager, vice president of research and development at SumerSports, a startup that advises NFL front offices. He pointed out that since 2011, when the NFL introduced new rookie salaries, each Super Bowl has featured at least one starting quarterback still on his rookie contract or earning comparable money.

In other words: underpaid, above-average quarterback play benefits a team.

“It’s never as easy when the quarterback makes a lot of money,” Eager said.

If the Ravens were to compensate Jackson at the market rate (at least $45 million annually, which would be roughly a quarter of their payroll), they would have fewer dollars to spend on other positions. But teams with well-paid, experienced quarterbacks like Tom Brady, can be successful, too, and Bisciotti challenged the idea last year that a team can’t succeed with a high-earning quarterback.

“There’s plenty of veterans out there that are winning Super Bowls,” he said.

Jackson, as unique off the field as he is on it, does not have an agent. Some have pointed to that as a potential block between Jackson and the Ravens agreeing to a deal. But Marty Conway, an adjunct sports management professor at Georgetown University, said he isn’t sure it would be. He noted players like former NBA standout Grant Hill and current Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith have signed contracts without formal representation. Smith signed a five-year deal earlier this month, reportedly worth $100 million.

“I was very happy to get Roquan done,” DeCosta said, “and I’ll be even more happy when we get Lamar done.”

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