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Franchise tag forces Jackson to explore options

by Brian Wacker Baltimore Sun | March 19, 2023 at 2:22 a.m.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson is under the non-exclusive franchise tag by the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have until July 17 to work out a long-term extension for the 2019 NFL MVP. (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

BALTIMORE -- Wally Williams knows the feelings Lamar Jackson might be experiencing.

In the Ravens' 28-year history, seven players have received the franchise tag. Williams, who spent 10 years in the NFL, including three in Baltimore from 1996 to 1998 before retiring after the 2002 season, was the first.

"The part that every player ends up having a problem with is, no matter who it is, with the negotiation process and trying to find a number that's good for you for that long-term contract," the former offensive lineman said from his home in Florida. "It's great to have a home; you just wanna know it's there for more than a year. I was no different. I wanted to call Baltimore home. I was not intending to leave there."

But after starting 13 games in 1998 under the tag, Williams signed a five-year, $18 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. Two seasons later, the Ravens won their first Super Bowl.

"New Orleans had a number that Baltimore, which had a certain number slotted for each position, could not pay," Williams said. "They won the Super Bowl, but I got what I wanted. I have no regrets. It worked out for both sides."

Since then, the Ravens have rarely used the franchise tag, which was introduced in the 1993 collective bargaining agreement as a way for teams to keep star players from hitting free agency in exchange for a lucrative one-year deal. Jackson received the $32.4 million nonexclusive tag last week, freeing the 26-year-old superstar quarterback to shop around for the big-money, long-term deal he desires.

So far, though, there haven't been any takers, with a handful of quarterback-needy teams surprisingly having no interest in pursuing the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player at the cost of two first-round draft picks. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the wait continues, with no news from Jackson or the Ravens since free agency officially opened Wednesday afternoon -- though Jackson did dispute an ESPN report from September that he turned down a $200 million guaranteed deal from Baltimore and retweeted a post from Robert Griffin III on Thursday in which the former quarterback suggested the New York Jets would be better served giving up two first-round picks for Jackson instead of four-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers.

What might be going on behind the scenes is anyone's guess. Jackson operates without an agent, instead leaning on his mom, Felicia Jones, so there aren't the usual agent leaks from what is an insular camp.

While Williams had a very good career, he never reached the same level that Jackson is already at entering his sixth NFL season.

Critics of Jackson have pointed to his injury history -- he missed 10 combined games the past two regular seasons, as well as last season's wild-card playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals -- and his career 1-3 playoff record in Baltimore.

Among the elements that also make things more complex in Jackson's negotiations with the Ravens is that, as mentioned, he does not have an agent, so the team is left to deal directly with its star quarterback.

"It's more personal and more standoffish when you're dealing directly with the player," Williams said. "That's what brings a uniqueness to Lamar's situation."

That process can ruffle feathers, and not just between the two parties but within the locker room.

Former Patriots linebacker and current ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi spent 13 years in New England from 1996 to 2008, and four players were franchise tagged during that time. Most notable among them was cornerback Asante Samuel, who, like Jackson, was seeking significant guaranteed money at the time. The two sides were far apart, however, and he played out the 2007 season before bolting for the Philadelphia Eagles for a lucrative six-year deal.

"It takes away from a championship-goal oriented team; it changes the mentality," Bruschi said of the general lingering effects of a player performing on a franchise tag. "You can tell there is something wrong with the player because he's not making a commitment because he doesn't feel the organization has made one to him.

"If Lamar were playing the season on the tag, I think I can deal with a quarterback playing on that because I can get in his ear and motivate him, but there's so much going on with a quarterback in terms of bringing guys along with him -- rookies, free agents -- in that commitment. So [then it becomes], what's my my motivation to put in work?

"I didn't even mention winning; and that's what makes it hard to deal with from a team perspective."

As for the team's approach, General Manager Eric DeCosta and Coach John Harbaugh have publicly and repeatedly said they want to have Jackson back and would like for him to be there long-term.

At the NFL scouting combine earlier this month, DeCosta said that he'd recently met with Jackson and was "optimistic" about the two sides being able to reach a long-term deal. Ditto for Harbaugh, who said he's "hopeful and excited, fervently hopeful" about that possibility.

Mike Tannenbaum, who was the Jets' general manager from 2006 to 2012 and is currently an NFL analyst for ESPN, concurred.

"[If you're Baltimore] you're pretty optimistic that he's going to be there on a one-year deal [at least] but also have to think of the possibility that if someone signs him, you're making sure to monitor all your options," he said. "Beyond that, I think deal fatigue has set in at the moment, and the [five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed] Deshaun Watson contract has a lot to do with that. I think it's reasonable he'll be back, but [Baltimore] can't just put its feet up."

The biggest advantage for the Ravens is that no team has made an offer to Jackson, and the number of potential destinations continues to dwindle. On Thursday, the Indianapolis Colts, who own the No. 4 overall pick in the draft and are expected to take a quarterback, signed veteran backup Gardner Minshew. One agent also noted that it's not Indianapolis' philosophy to be aggressive when it comes to free agent quarterbacks.

Another benefit, perhaps for both sides, is that there's time. Jackson and the Ravens have until July 17 to work out a long-term deal. After that, however, a new contract can't be done until after next season.

It's also certainly possible that Jackson plays next season on the tag and that the Ravens franchise tag him again in 2024, which is something Baltimore has done before, twice tagging cornerback Chris McAlister (2003-04) and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (2008-09). Both players ended up signing long-terms deals with the Ravens after that.

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