Lamar Jackson didn’t hire an agent. He didn’t agree to an extension when he became eligible. He requested a trade.
Jackson did all of the things elite players like him do not do, taking seemingly unnecessary risks and marching — mostly through inaction — to his own beat. But the proof of his success is in the pudding: Jackson, a unique player who took a unique approach, reportedly became the highest-paid player in NFL history by signing a five-year, $260 million contract Thursday, just hours before the NFL draft.
Most top-flight quarterbacks, like recently signed Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles, negotiate a lucrative, long-term contract before their rookie contract expires. It’s usually the safer approach and it usually makes the most financial sense.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, drafted 25 picks ahead of Jackson in 2018, agreed to a sizable deal two years ago and that’s been the norm for many quarterbacks. Jackson isn’t the norm.
In a sense, Jackson cost himself by not signing a lucrative, long-term deal when he was first eligible two years ago. But on the other hand, that deal would have since been surpassed by several quarterbacks.
Of the $260 million, $185 million is reportedly guaranteed. His average annual salary of $52 million ranks highest in the NFL — higher than what Hurts signed last week and higher than what New York Jets star Aaron Rodgers signed last year.
Handing out nine-figure contracts is not something the Ravens won’t do. But before Jackson, the largest contract in team history was former quarterback Joe Flacco’s six-year, $121 million deal; Jackson’s deal, a decade later, more than doubles that.
It’s a lot of money for the Ravens, but elite quarterbacks are few, and the demand for them is high.
Eric Eager, vice president of research and development at SumerSports, which advises NFL front offices, analyzes the value that players provide to teams. Whether the Ravens made a sound investment in paying top dollar for Jackson hinges on his health, Eager said. Jackson has missed 10 regular-season games over the past two years because of injury.
“If he doesn’t stay healthy, if he has a situation like the last two years, I think it’s going to be impossible for him to be that valuable,” Eager said. “But when he is healthy, he does make the players around him better, he enhances the run game, the running backs that run with him are always getting better yards per carry than they otherwise could. So, I think if healthy, this is fine for the Ravens.”
Everything about Jackson’s contract negotiations with the Ravens was atypical. He delayed his payday by waiting until his rookie contract expired to sign the deal and then, on March 27 of this year, he posted to Twitter that he had requested a trade from Baltimore. A month later, that had all changed.
He said in a video posted to the Ravens’ Twitter account Thursday: “Can’t wait to light up M&T [Bank Stadium] for the next five years.”
The process was also abnormal because Jackson does not have an agent. That likely made negotiations difficult but did allow Jackson to maximize his take of the deal, since an agent would have received between 1.5% and 3% (totaling $3.9 million to $7.8 million).
If Jackson had had an agent, he probably would have gotten this deal done “a long time ago,” Eager said, adding: “That being said, he got the top-of-market deal, so who’s to say he didn’t win?”
Jackson’s contract is not only important for his own bank account and the future of the Ravens as a Super Bowl contender, but it has implications on the market for top NFL players going forward.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson signed a large, fully guaranteed contract last year that shocked the league. NFL contracts, unlike MLB or the NBA, are not guaranteed, meaning teams can cut players and avoid paying some of the agreement.
Watson’s contract was structured to guarantee all money and Jackson reportedly sought the same deal. Doing so could have created a precedent of exceptional quarterbacks receiving fully guaranteed contracts.
When NFL teams did not line up to offer Jackson a deal in March (which they could have, since he was placed under a $32.4 million nonexclusive tag by the Ravens), the executive director of the NFL Players Association suggested owners could be colluding to prevent another guaranteed contract.
Jackson signing a non-fully guaranteed contract likely closes the door on Watson’s deal becoming more commonplace.
“Lamar was the last test case to see if the Watson contract would have any precedential value, or forever [be] deemed an outlier,” former NFL agent and executive Andrew Brandt wrote on Twitter. “The owners have — collusive or not — ‘won’ this battle, and NFL contracts, when compared to MLB/NBA contracts, will continue to sit at the children’s table.”
Regardless, the Ravens got their quarterback for the next half-decade. And Jackson got his deal — by doing it his way.