Lamar Jackson bet on himself and won. Now the Ravens and their QB need each other more than ever
Five years ago, when Lamar Jackson was the last pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, he stepped forth into the limelight fidgeting and irritated. Despite winning the Heisman Trophy at Louisville and being one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football for three years, he was bypassed in the draft for three quarterbacks that would have massively disappointing careers for the teams that selecting them: Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns, Sam Darnold of the New York Jets and Josh Rosen of the Arizona Cardinals.
That night in 2018, Jackson certainly couldn’t have known how badly that trio of franchise gambles would end. Yet when he made the rounds with the media on draft night, his posture suggested that he was already suspecting the future regret of the teams that passed on him, if not predicting it. He swayed with adrenaline in interviews and stared directly into eyes of reporters as he related how the experience had created a chip on his shoulder. And when he was asked the most important question of all — what the Baltimore Ravens would get for believing in him — it was no surprise that Jackson looked into an NFL Network camera and conjured the biggest of predictions.
“Everything out of me. They’ll get a Super Bowl out of me,” Jackson said. “Believe that.”
He nodded for effect and looked into the camera.
Five years and one (occasionally) prickly negotiation later, the Baltimore Ravens have delivered the clearest sign that they do indeed believe that. It comes in the form of a five-year, $260 million extension, with a $52 million annual average salary that makes Jackson the highest-paid player in NFL history. Sources have said it includes $185 million in true guarantees, which places Jackson behind only the Browns’ Deshaun Watson ($230.5 million) and Cardinals’ Kyler Murray ($189.5 million). It does, however, outpace the deal given to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, who briefly set a new record in average salary last week at $51 million per year, along with $180 million in guarantees.
Financially, the message is unquestionable. Fans and media can quibble about how the process unfolded or what it means that Jackson piggybacked Hurts’ deal to land his own, effectively eliminating the need for an agent by simply letting someone else’s representative do the heavy lifting. The only thing that really matters is what the money says about the Ravens and their franchise quarterback. And that is this: They’re all-in on the belief that Jackson is going to deliver the Super Bowl he promised in 2018. There’s no other way to absorb this deal. It’s the kind of thing you do because you either believe one player means everything to the future of your franchise (which is what got Watson paid by the Browns), or you’ve already been to the promised land and are looking to go back (which is what got Hurts paid by the Eagles).
Jackson has pointed the Ravens in the right direction, which is a start. But now comes the part that’s more difficult than hammering out or even paying a record-setting contract. Now both Jackson and the Ravens are going to need to make the partnership work in a way that realizes what they both want. That’s both obvious and perilous when you look outward. Because the landscape is littered with massive deals and high fives that quickly turned into financial hangovers and regrettable commitments. Consider the three biggest deals inked leading up the recent extensions of Jackson and Hurts.
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers (three years, $150.8 million). Renewed vows that lasted one season before Rodgers was traded this week to the New York Jets.
Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos (five years, $242.5 million). A constant storm cloud that played a part in new head coach Nathaniel Hackett getting fired 15 games into his first season.
Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals (five years, $230.5 million). A season-ending knee injury punctuated by the firing of head coach Kliff Kingsbury … one season before the extension is even set to kick in.
That’s not a few dumpster fires. That’s a Titanic-sized barge filled with garbage catching fire and then sinking into the harbor. We’re talking a full-scale environmental cleanup for each of those respective franchises. And now, the Ravens have to grapple with how to avoid a similar catastrophic outcome.
Thus far, the path forward has been to stack assets. Baltimore signed Odell Beckham Jr. to a one-year deal and spent a first-round pick on Boston College wideout Zay Flowers, whom the Ravens hope rekindles memories of Steve Smith Sr. brawling his way through the route tree in Baltimore. They’re also expected to poke around other potential options after the draft, although the selection of Flowers likely takes them out of the running for Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins. What the Ravens can’t do is simply stand pat. The defense could still use a cornerback and edge rusher, while the offensive line could use both depth and a potential starter at tackle.
With only four picks remaining in the draft and none of them higher than the third round, that’s going to be a tall order. Which means general manager Eric DeCosta and head coach John Harbaugh both have a significant amount of work cut out for them. And whatever they can’t resolve easily, Jackson is going to have to help cover by playing at an MVP level.
Because that’s part of the deal when a player vaults to the top of both the quarterback and overall NFL salary scale. The expanding nature of their deal sucks some oxygen out of other parts of the roster, leaving those players to raise those around them to another level. Oftentimes it requires either boosting or carrying lesser players to a level that they couldn’t achieve on their own.
That’s now a fundamental responsibility for Jackson, along with a fundamental promise by the Ravens braintrust to do everything it can to help facilitate it. After a long negotiation that often pitted them against each other, they’re now on the same side again. And the stakes and expectations — not to mention the ramifications of failure — are about to get costlier than ever. Jobs and legacies are on the line. Getting everything out of Jackson has now become a matter of getting everything out of everyone. Anything less is, well, we’ve seen what happens in those scenarios. It’s inviting a kind of failure that reboots coaching staffs or rosters. Sometimes, it resets entire franchises. With the biggest financial deal in league history binding them together, that’s what the Ravens and Jackson have on the line now.