Lamar Jackson’s NFL future includes a $100 million gamble

Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract extension, and Jackson is about to enter the final year of his deal after the Ravens tagged him as a franchise player. That franchise tag includes the Ravens’ right to match any offer for Jackson from another team or receive two first-round picks in the event the Ravens decline to match and the bidding team continues to sign the player. Jackson is betting hundreds of millions of dollars to play his hand and has chosen to represent himself in the negotiations.

There have been a lot of quarterback deals lately that have gotten a lot of public attention, including Deshaun Watson’s 5-year, $245 million guaranteed deal. Before last season, Kyler Murray was able to sign a 5-year deal for $230 million with $160 million guaranteed. Josh Allen received a $258 million contract with $150 million guaranteed and Russell Wilson’s 5 year $245 million contract included $165 million guaranteed.

Regarding guaranteed contracts, I have previously written that the NFL is the only major sports league that does not require guaranteed contracts and that players are not fully vested in benefits until after 4 years. This is no coincidence as NFL careers average less than 4 years and NFL quarterback careers just 3 years. This is a dangerous sport where a career-ending injury can happen at any time.

When I started my career representing NFL players, my first client was NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. At the time, the only part of the contract that was ever guaranteed was the signing bonus, not the annual salaries. I argue that this debate should be moot as all NFL contracts should be fully guaranteed. Slowly, over time, portions of star players’ annual salaries became guaranteed, but until recently it was moving at a snail’s pace, and Watson was the first to receive a fully guaranteed huge contract.

It is important to put guaranteed contracts into perspective. They simply give team owners less flexibility to dump underperforming or injured players and take them off the books so they can bring in other players under the salary cap. Teams will still receive the overall revenue share provided by the CBA, which amounts to 53% of NFL revenue. Players would still receive the remaining 47% of revenue as salaries. But teams don’t want to go on the books and pay underperforming players and give up roster and salary cap flexibility.

However, when it comes to quarterbacks, the situation gets more complicated. It’s pretty clear that quarterback is the most important position to building a winning franchise, and when a star quarterback comes along, the natural reaction is to keep that player happy. Thus, the battle for long-term guaranteed contracts emerges. Quarterback guarantees are on the rise, rising from $165 million last summer to DeShaun Watson’s $245 million fully guaranteed deal, the first of its kind. Many owners saw the Watson deal as a big mistake and are adamant that this mistake will not be repeated. On the other hand, athletes and agents use this as a precedent that all contracts should be fully guaranteed, just like other major sports.

In Lamar Jackson’s case, representing himself in this complicated hornet’s nest is especially challenging. Some athletes have said they no longer need an agent because the collective bargaining agreement outlines so many of the parameters for negotiation, including minimum salaries, the franchise tag and a salary cap. Jackson has apparently convinced himself, or simply convinced himself, that he doesn’t need anyone to represent him, apparently relying on informal advice from the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).

I shudder at the thought of Jackson representing himself without first class professional advice and representation guiding the process from start to finish. Just getting some advice from the side just isn’t good enough to get you the best result. Players are simply untrained in the painstaking process of negotiating, assessing market conditions, understanding the intricacies of collective bargaining agreements, assessing risks, communicating effectively, and making strategic and informed business decisions.

If you watch Jackson’s interview, you’ll see it in full view. Professional athletes are very emotional and those emotions are triggered if they don’t get what they think they deserve and once that happens it becomes difficult to repair the rift. It goes beyond money and has to do with feeling valued and respected by your team and often a difficult relationship to repair. A large part of the agent’s job is to drive the client’s value proposition during the negotiation process and while the two sides are apart to communicate the team’s position in the most diplomatic manner while leaving the door open for further discussion. Ultimately, the agent must make a judgment call about what is the best outcome that can be achieved and then make a recommendation to the client whether to accept it or not. I would always present the final offer and then logically present a risk versus reward analysis. When an athlete like Jackson represents himself, being told “no” can lead to an irrational response, a breakdown in communication, and a decision based purely on emotion rather than logic.

Additionally, there is a sense among owners that guaranteed contracts should not continue to escalate, despite Deshaun Watson’s deal setting a new standard for top quarterbacks. There have been reports that no team will make him an offer and he is being advised by the NFLPA that he will have to hold out for a fully guaranteed contract. He needs an agent, who knows every owner and GM, working between now and the start of next season, to give him a true picture of his market value, ie what a buyer/team is willing to pay for his services. If no team makes an offer, Jackson will be faced with the decision of whether to accept less than $250 million in guaranteed money.

Additionally, is Jackson’s scenario further complicated by the risk of injury this year? Keep in mind that Jackson is a running player and that increases the risk of injury. He has been in the NFL for 3 years and has suffered various injuries. The level of this future risk can be weighed through analytics. Rest assured that the team is looking into this to determine how much of his deal to guarantee.

Raven seems to feel the range is $160-180 million. Should Jackson roll the dice and at 26 play for $32.4 million with the possibility of risking nearly $150 million in guaranteed money if he gets seriously injured? It is unlikely that he will be able to get injury protection insurance for that long. If there really aren’t any other offers for him, I’m not sure what he should do. All I know is that if an “agent” advised him to take less than a $250 million guaranteed deal, he would probably be the last client he ever had, especially if Jackson played next year and had a breakout season and was bitter because he was underpaid.

All of this drama surrounding players rolling the dice could be avoided if the NFL simply guaranteed all contracts and perhaps put a limit on the length of such contracts like the other major sports leagues do. This would simplify the negotiation process and facilitate a more emotionally intelligent relationship and better culture between NFL owners and its players.

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