OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens made the long-expected move of placing the franchise tag on quarterback Lamar Jackson on Tuesday, but the team surprisingly chose to use the nonexclusive one. This marks the first time in seven years a quarterback has received the nonexclusive tag -- Kirk Cousins being the 2016 example -- according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Under the $32.416 million nonexclusive tag, Jackson -- who is not represented by an agent -- can engage in contract talks with other teams starting Monday. But Baltimore has the right to match any offer sheet Jackson signs with another team in order to keep him or take two first-round picks as compensation.
An exclusive tag, which is projected to be $45 million, would have allowed Baltimore to control Jackson's rights and all trade talks.
The sides have been unable to reach a long-term deal after 25 months of negotiations. Sources told ESPN last year that Jackson wanted a fully guaranteed deal like the one the Cleveland Browns gave to Deshaun Watson (five years, $230 million), but the Ravens believe Watson's contract is more of an outlier than a precedent. The Browns were put in a position where they had to overpay for Watson because he had reportedly narrowed his decision to the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints after initially rejecting Cleveland as part of his no-trade agreement.
So, for the first time in Ravens history, Baltimore used the franchise tag on a quarterback to keep Jackson from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Here are the biggest questions surrounding the move, as well as a quarterback ESPN NFL draft analyst Matt Miller says the Ravens might find intriguing early in the draft.
Why did the Ravens use the nonexclusive tag?
It's far less expensive than the exclusive one, and the Ravens need all of the salary cap room they can get to improve the team in free agency because of limited draft capital -- a total of five picks.
It also allows Jackson to talk to other teams and get a feel for his true market value, and to see whether another team is willing to offer a fully guaranteed deal. It forces Jackson to negotiate, albeit with other teams. Ravens officials have acknowledged over the past two years that it's been challenging to get Jackson to sit down to work out a deal. If Jackson signs an offer sheet and Baltimore matches it, the nonexclusive tag forced another team to do the Ravens' negotiating for them.
If Jackson doesn't get a fully guaranteed contract offer, that would strengthen Baltimore's stance that Watson's deal is not the norm and could increase Jackson's chances of returning.
The risk is that another team might offer Jackson a fully guaranteed deal, which is what Baltimore has been reluctant to do. Jackson is one of just two unanimous MVPs in NFL history -- Tom Brady is the other -- and his seven games of at least 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards is the most ever. It's difficult to believe the Ravens would allow another team to sign Jackson and be content with two first-round picks in return when the Houston Texans received three first-rounders for Watson a year ago.
How many quarterbacks have been given the nonexclusive tag?
It's rare but not unprecedented. Since the franchise tag began 30 years ago, only five quarterbacks have received the nonexclusive tag: Steve Young (49ers, 1993), Jim Harbaugh (Colts, 1996), Drew Brees (Chargers, 2005), Matt Cassel (Patriots, 2009) and Cousins (Washington, 2016).
Although there's an obvious risk to lose a franchise quarterback, there has never been a quarterback to sign elsewhere on the nonexclusive franchise tag. The only quarterback who played for another team after being given the nonexclusive tag is Cassel, who was traded from the New England Patriots to Kansas City in 2009 and signed a six-year deal with the Chiefs.
What does this mean for Jackson's future in Baltimore?
Jackson and Baltimore have until the league-mandated deadline of July 17 to get a deal done before suspending talks until the end of the season. Of the previous seven players tagged by the Ravens, five of them received new, multiyear deals.
"There have been many instances across the league, and in Baltimore, when a player has been designated with the franchise tag and signed a long-term deal that same year," Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. "We will continue to negotiate in good faith, and we are hopeful that we can strike a long-term deal that is fair to both Lamar and the Ravens. Our ultimate goal is to build a championship team with Lamar Jackson leading the way for many years to come."
The clock is ticking for Jackson and Baltimore. If the Ravens don't believe a deal can get done with Jackson next offseason, they will likely have to trade him in 2024. It doesn't make sense for Baltimore to tag Jackson next year, let him play out the 2024 season and watch him leave in free agency, only getting a third-round compensatory pick in 2026 in return. Jackson's future in Baltimore has to be resolved over the next 12 to 13 months.
Will Jackson hold out?
It's assumed Jackson won't report for offseason practices in the spring and training camp, but no one really knows. At the end of the season, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about a potential holdout and replied: "There's no guarantee it'll go that way ... Lamar's a unique guy. He's not beating to everybody's drum."
Last year, Jackson skipped all of the voluntary practices in the spring for the first time in his career and only reported for the mandatory minicamp. If he doesn't sign the franchise tag right away, Jackson technically isn't under contract and can't get fined for missing all offseason practices. Jackson only has to report just before the start of the regular season in order to earn his $1.77 million weekly salary. An extended absence by Jackson isn't ideal for a Ravens team that is installing a new scheme under Todd Monken, who was hired as offensive coordinator to replace Greg Roman.
There's also no guarantee Jackson will play under the tag, especially the cheaper one. Jackson might take exception to Baltimore choosing to go the nonexclusive route, which will cost him about $13 million. There have been three players to sit out a season after being tagged: defensive tackles Sean Gilbert (Washington, 1997) and Dan Williams (Chiefs, 1998) and running back Le'Veon Bell (Steelers, 2018).
If Jackson holds out for the offseason practices or the entire season, the most experienced quarterback remaining on Baltimore's roster is Tyler Huntley, who is 3-5 in his career as a starter and struggled to score touchdowns last season after Jackson sustained a season-ending knee injury. Huntley is a restricted free agent. Baltimore could add another veteran quarterback such as Baker Mayfield or Jacoby Brissett. But given the amount of cap room Jackson's tag takes up, the Ravens might not be able to afford an improved backup plan at quarterback.
What impact does this have on Baltimore's cap situation?
Jackson's tag caused the Ravens to go from $22 million under the cap to $10 million over it. Baltimore has to be under the cap by 4 p.m. ET on March 15, which means the team has work to do in terms of cutting players and getting other players to either take pay cuts or agree to cap-friendly extensions.
The Ravens can create $15 million in cap space by cutting defensive end Calais Campbell ($7 million cap savings), safety Chuck Clark ($3.64 million) and running back Gus Edwards ($4.384 million). Baltimore can make more room by reaching contract extensions with guard Kevin Zeitler and wide receiver Devin Duvernay.
Baltimore needs space to not only get Jackson under the cap but improve the roster of a team that got bounced in the wild-card round. The Ravens have five draft picks, their fewest since 1999, and they need to upgrade at wide receiver and add a starting cornerback. In other words, Jackson's tag severely limits what the Ravens can do to build a championship team around him.
Are there QBs in the second and third rounds who could intrigue them?
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is an intriguing second-round option. Hooker, who tore the ACL in his left knee in November, was a leading Heisman Trophy contender at the time. His 27 touchdown passes to two interceptions in 2022 is the best rate in the class. With an excellent deep ball and top-tier accuracy -- as well as the mobility needed to excel in Baltimore -- Hooker is a solid top-60 pick and projects as a starter when he gets healthy. - Matt Miller