Deshaun Watson contract likely derailed Lamar Jackson talks

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It’s unclear whether the Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson would have gotten a negotiated contract if the Browns hadn’t given quarterback Deshaun Watson a fully-guaranteed, $230 million, five-year deal. It’s fairly clear that the Watson contract played a huge role in keeping the Ravens and Jackson from getting something done.

It’s generally believed that Jackson wanted a fully-guaranteed contract, primarily since Watson got one. It’s not an unreasonable position for Jackson to take. He won a league MVP award. Watson didn’t. Jackson has been a model citizen for the Ravens away from the field. Watson, to put it mildly, has not. If Watson deserves five years with a full guarantee, Jackson does, too.

Conversely, it’s not unreasonable for the Ravens to refuse to do it. Subsequent contracts (such as the Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson deals) suggest that the Watson contract was an aberration. Indeed, the planets lined up perfectly for Watson. Off-field issues notwithstanding, he: (1) forced a trade from Houston; (2) managed to get four teams to the table in an effort to land his services; (3) eliminated the Browns from consideration after they’d burned the bridge with Baker Mayfield; and (4) witnessed a desperate Browns franchise make Watson an offer he couldn’t refuse, in the form of a fully-guaranteed deal.

Jackson, unless he jostles to be traded after the 2023 season, won’t be able to create the same kind of rush for his services. Even if he does, one of the teams pursuing him will have to be sufficiently desperate to offer the kind of contract that will trigger derision and disapproval from the rest of the league.

And if the Ravens decide to apply the franchise tag for 2023 and 2024, Jackson remains three years away from Kirk Cousins-style unrestricted free agency. Jackson, given his playing style, may not be the same player after three more years of regularly running the ball and taking hits.

It’s another reason why Jackson needs an agent who would have explained the situation to him. Who would have told him why the Watson deal was an unattainable goal, absent first and foremost a willingness to refuse to play for the Ravens. Who would have counseled him regarding the risks and rewards, the costs and benefits, the pros and cons of taking, or not taking, the best offer the Ravens put on the table.

Then there’s the possibility that Jackson was, and still is, quietly being advised by the NFL Players Association. Union president JC Tretter wrote an essay after the Watson deal urging agents to push for fully-guaranteed contracts. What if the NFLPA, in any advice it gave to Jackson, was trying to advance that agenda in lieu of considering the actual best interests of Jackson?

Because Jackson has not said much to anyone about the process, it’s fair to wonder where and from whom he has received his advice. If someone was advising him to hold firm for a fully-guaranteed contract without explaining that maybe he would have been better off getting the most guarantees he could and maxing out his compensation relative to the Murray and Wilson contracts, that would help explain the refusal to accept Baltimore’s final offer—if they were willing to exceed the Murray and Wilson numbers.

No one knows what the Ravens offered. But these are the Ravens, not one of the various dysfunctional teams that always find a way to screw things up. Given the deals they’ve done in recent years with key players, it’s fair to assume that the Ravens put together a package that, while not fully-guaranteed, became a strong alternative to $124 million over the next three years, on a year- to-year basis of $23 million in 2022, roughly $46 million under the exclusive franchise tag in 2023, and then $55.2 million under the tag in 2024.

Unless Jackson is planning a power play, such as demanding a trade after the 2022 season, the choice came down to Door No. 1 ($124 million over three years) or Door No. 2 (Baltimore’s best offer, as part of a deal that wasn’t fully-guaranteed). He thing Door No. 1. He has every right to do it. Here’s hoping he did it with a full understanding and appreciation of the ramifications of passing on Door No. 2. Saying, “It wasn’t fully-guaranteed” isn’t a good enough reason to do that.

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