Lamar Jackson is a transcendent NFL quarterbacking talent.
You might have also heard the – sort of – free agent superstar serves as his own agent and, on that front, well … Lamar Jackson is a transcendent NFL quarterbacking talent.
Some (free) advice for you, Lamar: Hire an established professional to reel in your first Brink’s truck. Please. There’s no telling how much income you’ve already lost, nor what your perpetually stalled talks with the Baltimore Ravens are costing you from a reputational standpoint.
In Jackson’s defense, it’s understandable why any football player (or hard-working human) would want to keep 100% of his or her hard earned rather than paying 3% to an agent. That approach makes sense, temporarily anyway, in the current era of rookie contracts that are valuated and slotted off the NFL draft order. Jackson, the 32nd pick of the 2018 draft – the final first-rounder that year – just completed his initial professional pact. He made $32.5 million over the past five years, most via his 2022 fifth-year option, which was worth $23 million.
It’s hardly unprecedented for contemporary football stars to represents themselves. DeAndre Hopkins, Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner are among the most prominent to negotiate their own lucrative contracts. Jackson’s teammate, Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith, reached a five-year, $100 million extension ($60 million guaranteed) with the team earlier this year, making him the league’s highest-paid off-ball linebacker.
And yet none of them play – or talk dollars from – the high-stakes quarterback position.
Jackson, the league MVP in 2019, is obviously very accomplished at his day job. But he has no experience successfully negotiating nine-figure paydays.
“This is just a completely, completely different level of intricacy,” former New York Giants vice president of player personnel Marc Ross told USA TODAY Sports regarding quarterback contracts, adding it’s “almost an impossible task” for the agents and team salary cap experts who are accustomed to such undertakings.
“This whole situation, this whole turn of events is unprecedented,” said Ross, now an NFL Network analyst. “I would have advised Lamar a while ago – a year ago – ‘Let’s go, let’s just move forward and end this drama.'”
Yet it drags on.
Jackson was slapped with the $32.4 million non-exclusive franchise tag last week – meaning he can still reach a long-term extension with Baltimore or sign an offer sheet he prefers from another team, which would have to surrender two first-round draft picks if the Ravens declined to match it.
If no offer is forthcoming, Jackson could sign his tag and earn the most money he ever has in one NFL season – though he’d rank 13th in average annual QB salary among peers who have also already pocketed hefty signing bonuses.
From immediate compensation, to say nothing of the time value of money, meaning interest accrues more quickly the sooner you can bank a windfall, it feels like Jackson isn’t winning.
But that seems to be the decision he’s made … as his own rep.
“What does Lamar Jackson want? That’s all that matters. That’s the only person whose opinion matters in this situation,” agent David Canter, president of GSE Football, told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s the one that has to go out and play. He’s the one that has to sign the contract. He’s the one that has to perform and produce. And he’s the one who thinks he can do it without representation.
“I’ve done this for 27 years. Of course I think he should hire an agent – of course I wish he’d hire me. But … Lamar wants what Lamar wants, and he’s doing what he thinks he needs to do to get it. The team is doing what they think they have to do to protect their asset. That’s the business of professional football in the United States of America.”
How did we get here, and what has Jackson already risked while biding his time?
The easiest contractual comparison for Jackson is probably Buffalo Bills counterpart Josh Allen, who was drafted 25 spots ahead of him in 2018. The following year, Jackson was unanimously chosen as NFL MVP; the year after that, Allen was the MVP runner-up. Both Allen and Jackson are threats through the air and on the ground. Allen has proven more durable, and his team has had more playoff success, including a win over Jackson and the Ravens in the 2020 divisional round.
Overall, pretty much apples to Granny Smith apples.
Yet Allen signed a six-year, $258 million extension with $150 million in guarantees – almost two years ago.
That’s substantial money in the bank and collecting interest … while Allen progresses toward his third contract.
It’s been five years since Kirk Cousins – and no one will confuse his ability with Jackson’s – signed his three-year, $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Fully guaranteed by the way. Cousins has renegotiated his way to two more short-term fully guaranteed deals. Never a league MVP, but Cousins is certainly one of the NFL’s savviest businessmen – showing that betting on yourself can lead to extensive riches and subsequent opportunities for more, even if most are reluctant to follow his path.
And that means substantial money in the bank and collecting interest … while Cousins progresses toward his seventh contract.
After being courted by multiple teams – via trade – Deshaun Watson signed a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million deal last year after being dealt from the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns. It was a shocking transaction, not only due to the guarantee but because it was awarded to Watson despite his 230 million pounds of personal baggage.
And it was not a welcome transaction in NFL circles, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti included, but seems to be the bar Jackson intends to clear.
“I don’t know that (Watson) should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others,” Bisciotti said last year.
He added: “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to play that game, you know? We shall see.”
We’re also seeing that fully guaranteed mega pacts have not become the norm among players generally or quarterbacks specifically. Admittedly, Derek Carr, Daniel Jones and Geno Smith aren’t in Jackson’s stratum. But Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray are – particularly prior to highly disappointing 2022 campaigns – and both signed extensions in the months after Watson’s apparent watershed deal, each with a higher total contractual value but neither with guarantees approaching $230 million.
Understandable if Jackson thinks he should get more than Watson. But, at this point, teams aren’t bidding for Jackson, as there’s ample evidence NFL owners are in no mood to make long-term payouts from which there’s no escape hatch.
Jackson can sign a long-term extension with the Ravens until July 17.
He can sign an offer with another team starting Wednesday afternoon, which the Ravens would then have five days to match or could pass and take their pair of first-rounders.
Of course several reports emerged shortly after Jackson was tagged, quarterback-deficient teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Commanders purportedly with no interest in pursuing him.
Is that because his financial demands are so astronomical that he’s failed to sign an extension even though he was eligible for one two years ago? Is it because he’s missed five games each of the past two seasons, ending both in street clothes while Baltimore’s playoff chances and/or hopes went up in smoke amid questions about his availability?
Or is it all a smokescreen?
“Until the actual free agent window starts, it’s all lies, it’s all deception, it’s all checkers and chess. So who knows what’s really going to happen?” says Canter, who’s negotiated more than 1,200 NFL contracts.
“Everything changes once the money’s on the line.”
He notes it was reported last year that the Browns were out of the running for Watson. Until they weren’t.
And even if it might not be palatable to, on some level, essentially do Baltimore’s negotiating, contracts can be structured in ways that could make it extremely difficult for the Ravens to match even if they want to.
Ross, for one, thinks Baltimore has to ante up, whatever the circumstances.
“The guy goes out there and produces and wins – historically,” he says, citing Jackson’s age (26) and 45-16 regular-season record.
“You don’t have him, now where do you go? I’m doing everything possible to make sure that this works.”
The current confluence of variables would be highly suggestive that Jackson could certainly save himself a headache by having an agent and that he might already be saving (and earning) a lot more money than he presently is if he did. Having a business buffer is also a primo way to preserve relationships with your bosses.
“It gets volatile at times, it gets contentious,” Ross says of NFL contract battles. “And, when you’re dealing directly with a player, it just becomes so delicate and so difficult.
“That can be tough when you’re always having to sort of walk on eggshells. And that’s just the personal part of it, let alone the intricacies of actually doing the contract – there’s so much stuff that goes into NFL contracts, especially for the quarterback.”
Suboptimal, particular with Jackson putting himself in a scenario akin to Major League Baseball arbitration – typically a trip to the dentist’s chair for those who star on the diamond as they haggle with teams about their worth while being told why their accomplishments don’t rate the higher of two proposed one-year salaries.
Yet as recently as Tuesday, Jackson (once again) dug in on the notion he doesn’t require an agent. He tweeted that he’d apparently received an offer of three years and $133 million “fully guaranteed” – that’s an average of $44.3 million annually, which would currently rank sixth among NFL quarterbacks – though it wasn’t clear if that was a full-blown contract framework or a component of a larger one.
“What you deserve and what teams are willing to pay you are two totally, completely opposite things,” says Canter. “The idea that he has to have an agent? Or he has to do anything? He doesn’t – and nobody can tell him otherwise. And for that, I respect the living daylights out of the kid.
“Do I agree with it? Professionally, of course not. (But) I want to see him make as much money as humanly possible, just like I want for every player in the National Football League.”
And for Jackson, less – just 3% anyway – might mean a whole lot more over the long run.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.