Mike Preston: Ravens and QB Lamar Jackson could be in for a long offseason as free agent money dries up

Tribune Content Agency

These could be long and uneventful months for both the Ravens and star quarterback Lamar Jackson when it comes to negotiating a new contract.

There was hope that both sides would come to some type of resolution weeks before the NFL draft begins April 27, but there doesn’t appear to be enough serious interest in Jackson, 26, from any of the league’s other 31 teams.

The Ravens put the nonexclusive franchise tag on Jackson earlier this month, which means he will be paid $32.4 million in 2023 if he remains in Baltimore. Jackson can sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Ravens can either match that deal or decline and receive two first-round draft picks as compensation — one each in 2023 and 2024.

While there has not yet been a serious offer for Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player has been linked to the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Houston Texans, who could all look to upgrade at quarterback this offseason. There was even a report Tuesday from Pro Football Talk, citing anonymous sources, that a representative for Jackson not certified by the NFL Players Association has been contacting other teams and telling them that Jackson is ready to move on from the Ravens. There was similar buzz about Jackson’s situation at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February.

But when left tackle Laremy Tunsil — who, like Jackson, represents himself — agreed to a three-year contract extension with Houston last week worth $75 million, including $50 million guaranteed at signing, it was a signal that the free agent market is about to dry up.

Something had better start shaking soon or everyone involved could go fishing for a couple of weeks.

Or maybe we could tune in and watch the Lamar Jackson Entertainment Inc. YouTube page, where the star quarterback promises an exclusive interview with his own production company. I can’t wait. Maybe Jackson will discuss the desire for fully guaranteed contracts in the NFL. Maybe he’ll banter about the pros and cons of signing an agent or list the teams he has been involved with in contract negotiations.

Regardless, bring the popcorn because not much else is happening during this standoff.

There has been talk of potential collusion among NFL owners with Jackson, since no team seems willing to offer him a fully guaranteed contract — or at least one with most of the money guaranteed. In reality, few teams want to be in the same situation as the Cleveland Browns, who signed quarterback Deshaun Watson to a five-year contract worth $230 million fully guaranteed last offseason.

The NFLPA clearly wants Jackson to get a fully guaranteed deal. Executive director DeMaurice Smith said as much last week, lambasting owners for “criminally gaming the game itself.” But when offering Jackson some advice, someone should have whispered in his ear: “It’s only Cleveland, man. No one respects them. No other team is going to give you the Watson deal.”

Plus, other NFL teams have come to their senses. Why would you give up two first-round draft picks for a quarterback who has missed 10 games over the past two seasons with knee and ankle injuries? Jackson is an explosive talent, but not in the class of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes or the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen when it comes to throwing the ball. He is a running quarterback, and similar players — Cam Newton, Steve Young — have faded faster in their careers.

Meanwhile, the Ravens are using Jackson’s situation as a cover for not pursuing free agents. In some ways, their concerns are legitimate. You can’t pursue a high-profile wide receiver when you can’t guarantee who will be the starting quarterback.

But throughout their history, the Ravens have seldom engaged in signing big-name free agents. Remember their mantra, “right player, right price,” which is another way of saying they’re cheap. The Ravens have re-signed only five of their 20 free agents so far, allowing left guard Ben Powers to sign with the Denver Broncos and cutting defensive end Calais Campbell in a cost-saving move.

There has been talk of Ravens interest in free agent wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., but let’s be serious. The Ravens’ idea of an impact receiver includes the likes of Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson, who are both past their primes.

Because of the tag designation, there is no rush for Jackson to get a deal done soon. In fact, if he doesn’t find another interested team and he and the Ravens don’t find common ground, he’ll probably hold out of offseason training activities, minicamp and training camp. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken tried to downplay the importance of Jackson missing practices, but he isn’t fooling anyone.

Repetition is the key to learning, especially in football. If practices weren’t so important, then why are minicamps mandatory? If practices weren’t so important, why are new NFL head coaches allowed to start training camp sooner than other teams?

Patience is being urged. Right now, no one knows when, where or how this is going to end. The Ravens could trade Jackson on the first day of the draft if the price is right. All we can do is wait.

And wait some more.