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At 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is finally cleared to submit overtures and contract offers from other teams. The question, and it seems even more legitimate now than it was when the Ravens placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on the quarterback a week ago, is who will call the former unanimous MVP of the league?
As the NFL’s two-day tampering window turns at the start of the league’s new year, the Ravens’ star caller market remains unclear, even as quarterback-needy teams remain. Several teams that seemed like a good fit for Jackson have either acquired a starting quarterback or are close to doing so, narrowing the list of potential suitors even further.
That list no longer includes the Carolina Panthers, who last week arranged a trade with the Chicago Bears for the top draft pick next month, allowing them to select any rookie quarterback of their choice. It no longer includes the Las Vegas Raiders, who opted to replace Derek Carr, now a New Orleans Saints starter, with veteran Jimmy Garoppolo. It no longer includes the Miami Dolphins, who picked up the fifth-year option on starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, signed backup Mike White to a two-year contract and made a host of other moves, including the addition of high-priced cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
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The Atlanta Falcons, who were eager to let everyone know last week that they were on Jackson, acted this week like a team that has no intention of making him a contract offer and plans to stay the course with Desmond Ridder. The Falcons used a ton of their cap space and agreed to a two-year deal worth up to $20 million with Taylor Heinicke to back Ridder.
The New York Jets continue to work to acquire Aaron Rodgers from the Green Bay Packers, and it has been widely reported that the salary-limited Tampa Bay Buccaneers are considering cheaper options, such as Baker Mayfield and Jacoby Brissett, to enter and compete. with Kyle Trask for the starting quarterback position. Armed with the No. 2 pick, the Houston Texans are in a position to sign a quarterback, rather than giving that pick and a 2024 first-rounder to the Ravens in exchange for Jackson.
So who does that leave? The Indianapolis Colts stand out. By releasing quarterback Matt Ryan and agreeing to trade veteran corner Stephon Gilmore to the Dallas Cowboys on Tuesday, the Colts have certainly created some salary cap space. However, team officials have also spoken of wanting to draft their own caller after tracking three straight veterans following Andrew Luck’s surprising retirement. With the No. 4 pick, the Colts are guaranteed to have one of the best quarterbacks in the draft: CJ Stroud from Ohio State, Bryce Young from Alabama, Anthony Richardson from Florida or Will Levis from Kentucky.
Set to start sophomore fifth-round pick Sam Howell, the Washington Commanders are another team that has been linked to Jackson. It’s not hard to see potential outgoing owner Daniel Snyder making such a move and being willing to offer Jackson a fully guaranteed deal that would be hard for Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to match. However, NFL Network’s Sherree Burruss interviewed Commanders coach Ron Rivera on Monday and reported that Rivera said “there’s no pressure” to get involved in Jackson’s bid.
Tennessee Titans? New general manager Ran Carthon has backed starter Ryan Tannehill, and the Titans aren’t acting like a team that’s suddenly willing to give a quarterback more than $200 million in guaranteed money.
It would be foolish, given the delicacy of the negotiations, for another team to directly announce its intentions to make an offer to Jackson. It’s also lying season in the NFL, so it’s wise not to overlook any potential destinations when a quarterback upgrade is available. Jackson is only 26 years old and one of the most dynamic players in the league. He would also be a huge draw for a franchise struggling for relevance, and the owners — the ones who are going to have to make the final decision on a deal of this magnitude anyway — surely understand what his addition would mean.
For their part, the Ravens haven’t done anything in the past two days that would jeopardize their chances of tying an offer sheet for Jackson. They agreed to trade safety Chuck Clark, released veteran defensive end Calais Campbell, and asked running back Gus Edwards and tackle Michael Pierce to take pay cuts. Guard Kevin Zeitler also had his contract revised to create more heading space. In all three contract changes, the Ravens used void years, which they have avoided in the past. Their willingness to use them this year could easily be seen as a sign that Baltimore is ready to use any measure possible to protect against an outside offer for Jackson.
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The Ravens’ only free agent move was to re-sign cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who happens to be Jackson’s cousin, to a one-year contract for what will likely be pretty close to the league minimum. . The Ravens are in line to enter the new league year with about $10 million in salary cap space, but there are other steps they could take to create more. Simple contract restructurings of left tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey would more than double their available cap space.
Ravens officials have expressed confidence that they can match any offer for Jackson if they choose. But the questions remain: will he sign one, and with whom?
Some upcoming non-tenders
The Ravens have until 4 p.m. Wednesday to make a decision on whether to sign their six restricted free agents, a group that includes quarterback Tyler Huntley, center Trystan Colon, linebackers Del’Shawn Phillips and Kristian Welch, safety Geno Stone and long snapper Nick Moore. However, it is expected that most, if not all, of them will not get a contract, which would allow them to move into free agency.
Even the lowest bid would cost the Ravens just under $2.7 million, a healthy outlay for a team against the cap. Clearly, the Ravens aren’t going to extend contract offers of this level to Phillips and Welch, who almost exclusively play special teams and combined to record five defensive snaps last year. The highest-paid long snappers in the NFL earn between $1.4 million and $1.5 million a year. A low bid is almost double that, which is why the Ravens won’t feature Moore, happy as they are with the way he’s played his role the past two seasons.
The Ravens obviously love Colon, the former undrafted free agent who has proven to be a strong reserve and held on in four starts in three seasons. Still, he projects himself as the team’s eighth or ninth offensive lineman. He’s valuable, but is he worth $2.7 million for a short-capped team?
Stone has also proven to be a regular contributor over the past two years on defensive and special teams. He started seven games last year for an injured Marcus Williams and held up well. With Clark traded, Stone would be the favorite to be the team’s No. 3 safety in 2023 behind Williams and Kyle Hamilton, and that’s a potentially big role. Still, the Ravens, at the start of the week, were leaning toward non-bidder Stone, according to those involved in the talks. They planned to revisit the decision closer to Wednesday’s deadline.
Then there’s Huntley, which might be the toughest decision of all. The Ravens have been in talks about bringing in a more experienced veteran replacement who, assuming Jackson is back, would leave Huntley at No. 3 quarterback. the team would be willing to pay Huntley. However, if the Ravens don’t submit him, the only quarterback on their roster as of mid-March would be undrafted second-year free agent Anthony Brown.
Traditionally, the Ravens have managed to not offer certain restricted free agents and then be able to re-sign them for more team-friendly deals. All teams do. But there is no guarantee when these players are allowed to make outside offers. Huntley has shown enough in his eight starts over the past two seasons to be attractive to other teams as a low-cost backup quarterback. Some teams could easily consider Stone a starter and be able to pay him as such. The Ravens’ ability to find and develop special teams players is well-documented in the league, so a guy like Moore will likely generate interest.
The Ravens are in a bit of a tough spot. They need to be thrifty and selective in how they use their cap space, but losing guys like Huntley, Stone, Colon and Moore would create openings on their roster that they would have to fill.
Backup QB options
The idea behind the Ravens spending money on the backup quarterback position wasn’t based on finding a replacement if Jackson left. It was more about finding a more experienced option if Jackson’s season-ending injury troubles persist, and a contingency plan if the quarterback chooses to hold training camp due to his contract stalemate.
Ravens make contingency plans as contract standoff with Lamar Jackson continues
With a new offensive coordinator in Todd Monken, the Ravens will have to put training camp and preseason to good use. An experienced quarterback, who has been in different offenses and understands the acclimatization process, would help with that transition if, in fact, Jackson is a tough side. However, the market for relief shifts has thinned since the tampering window opened.
Mayfield and Brissett are the best remaining options, but both are naturally looking for opportunities to potentially start. Behind them are former starters Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. And then there’s a bunch of younger options, like Cooper Rush, Gardner Minshew, Drew Lock and Mason Rudolph.
The Ravens could easily stretch Huntley and stay loyal, opting to spend their limited cap elsewhere. There are options though if they go in a different direction.
(Top photo: Ray Seebeck/USA Today)