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Lamar Jackson in the NFL: When $133 million isn’t enough

The Baltimore Ravens offered Lamar Jackson a new contract before the current season that promised him $274 million over six seasons. The quarterback declined because only $133 million of that amount would be guaranteed if signed. Crazy, you might think, but the really crazy thing is that both sides are doing the right thing, the fault is in the system.

Unlike in European soccer, for example, NFL salaries are not freely negotiated. The US Football League is a franchise system whose rules must give all 32 clubs the same chance of success, at least in the medium term. There is no promotion or relegation. The cornerstones of the collective bargaining agreement are salary caps for franchises, the structure of contracts based on seniority, and restrictions on contract renewal. This also means that contracts are not paid per month, but by the day of the game, which often also means that if you cannot play, also due to injury, you do not get any money.

In this particular case, Jackson, 25, is getting the $23.016 million he is entitled to under the contract in his fifth year as a professional – the amount is not negotiated, but is written exactly as it was in the first professional contract. The Ravens have an option drawn for this season, and after this season they can put what they call a “franchise tag” on him. They would have to pay him the average salary of the five highest-paid quarterbacks — an estimated $46 million just for the 2023 season — so he wouldn’t be allowed to negotiate with other clubs. This is roughly the average annual salary of the offer including all bonuses: $45.6 million.

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Jackson basically plays two positions at once – this makes him prone to injuries

There are variants of this franchise tag: The Ravens can therefore only offer 32 million – with the option to move even with a higher offer from another club or be compensated with two first-round picks from the talent exchange if Jackson leaves. Or only 29 million, for which they would only have the right to match without being entitled to draft picks.

“There’s always risk; I play football, so anything can happen,” says Lamar Jackson.

(Photo: Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports)

A franchise tag option could be worth it for the Ravens this year because they can buy time and continue to make their own decisions – after that, the exclusive tag (where Jackson is not allowed to negotiate with any other club) will be expensive not) will increase the salary to 55.2 (2024) and set 80 million in the season after, which is significantly more than a long-term solution.

The Ravens’ hesitation is risk aversion because of Jackson’s style of play, which he has demonstrated impressively in the first three games of this season. He basically plays two positions at the same time: as a thrower, he threw for 218 yards and four touchdown passes in 37:26 against the New England Patriots last weekend, but he also ran for 107 yards himself and once the opposing end zone reach. That’s why the fans, but also those responsible for the Ravens, are amazed at every attempt to run: out of rapture over the spectacle, but also out of concern for Jackson’s health.

Injuries are not uncommon for running backs. So it’s not about the total and thus the comparison with Russell Wilson ($242.5 million Denver Broncos, $161 million guaranteed) or Kyler Murray ($230.5 million guaranteed, 160 million Arizona Cardinals), but only about the Comparison to Deshaun Watson, who negotiated the preseason guarantee of 230 million with the Cleveland Browns over five seasons.

In the contract negotiations, Jackson is practically betting that nothing will happen to him

Jackson became the youngest running back to start a playoff game at age 21 in 2018, a year later he was named the league’s most valuable player, this season he is again being named a considered favorite. He does not employ a consultant, he negotiates for himself with his mother Felicia. Understandably, he wants the highest possible guarantee amount and he practically bets that nothing will happen to him: “There is always a risk; I play football, something can always happen. Let’s hope the wrong thing doesn’t happen.”

Both Jackson and the Ravens understandably follow the rules, and that likely won’t change anytime soon; the collective agreement is valid until 2030. On Sunday, the Ravens play the Buffalo Bills, whose playmaker Josh Allen is considered the biggest competitor for the MVP election. The spectators will probably drop a lot of jaws at this game – mostly out of excitement, but also out of concern if Jackson gets taken down hard again.

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