PRESTON: Lamar Jackson deserves new contract, but Ravens shouldn’t mortgage away future

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Lamar Jackson

Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said Monday that he could be in contact soon with quarterback Lamar Jackson about a new contract, but he should proceed with caution because overpaying Jackson could set the franchise back years.

Jackson, 24, has one season remaining on his original four-year rookie deal that was worth nearly $9.5 million, and he is expected to make about $1.8 million in base salary in 2021. The Ravens would like Jackson to agree to a new contract before the end of next season, but they shouldn’t put him in the same class as the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, including Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes ($45 million annually), Houston’s Deshaun Watson ($39 million), Seattle’s Russell Wilson ($35 million), Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger ($34 million) or Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($33.5 million).

They can’t afford to “break the bank” on Jackson because there are still questions about whether he can carry this team deep into the playoffs and win a Super Bowl title. Of the top five highest-paid players in the NFL last season, based on average annual value, only one — Watson — does not wear a championship ring.

Watson signed a four-year, $156 million contract in September and the Texans finished 4-12. He reportedly wants out of Houston, but few teams are going to be able to take on that salary. Jackson’s relationship with the Ravens isn’t as estranged. The Ravens like his charisma, work ethic and big-play ability and he is one of the most liked players in the locker room.

Lamar Jackson

Bottom line: On a team that lacks bona fide superstars, Jackson, the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player, is the only player with instant name recognition.

But here’s the bottom line: Jackson is 1-3 in the postseason, having completed 56% of his passes for an average of 6.6 yards per attempt. He has three touchdown passes and five interceptions in those games. He has rushed for 367 yards (6.8 per carry) and been sacked 19 times. He has fumbled five times.

Granted, the Ravens need to give him a nice, new contract. His win-loss record after 2\u00bd years as a starter is a remarkable 30-7. If he and the Ravens continue to flourish, they can always tear up his deal and renegotiate another one, as the team often did with former Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

But right now is not the ideal time. There is too much at risk. All of the highest-paid quarterbacks can win games with their arms, but Jackson hasn’t proven that yet. Plus, he’s is still more of a runner more than a thrower, which makes him a greater injury risk.

Paying QBs too much can be damaging: There have been several cases in which teams have overpaid their quarterback and struggled because they weren’t able to bring in other high-priced players. The Ravens have to look no further than 2013, when they made Joe Flacco the highest paid quarterback in the league after their Super Bowl victory. In the five seasons that followed, the Ravens went to the playoffs only once.

Nearly two years ago, when he took over as general manager, DeCosta said he wanted to re-sign a lot of the team’s draft choices and young players, and the Ravens did so by agreeing to new contracts with left tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerback Marlon Humphrey earlier this season. But there are other top players the Ravens need to re-sign, such as right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and tight end Mark Andrews.

Can they still do that, and possibly sign a top unrestricted free agent, if they make Jackson one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL?

“As far as the salary cap goes, I think it’s such a strange phenomenon, because we are actually probably 11th or 12th best in the league in terms of salary cap room, and we anticipate that number being somewhere between $15 [million] to $20 million,” DeCosta said. “However, that’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, and that’s based on a projection of between $175 million and $180 million dollars of salary cap room. So, we like the positioning we are in. I think there are about 14 or 15 teams this year who are actually over the salary cap.

“We see that as an opportunity for the club to really improve. But it’s an unusual dynamic and there are going to be, I think, some challenges for teams to get under the cap. We’d like to have more room than we have; $15 [million] to $20 million dollars is not a lot of money. But when we judge ourselves against our competitors, we feel like we have an opportunity to use that to our advantage.”

The big picture: There is so much to like about Jackson. His ability to make cuts without slowing down, elusiveness and improvisational skills make him one of the most dangerous players in NFL history.

But let’s not get so enamored that we lose sight of the big picture. The major problem for this team, as it has been for three straight seasons, is its inability to achieve balance. The Ravens were ranked No. 1 in rushing offense this season but No. 32 in passing.

There are several problems with the passing game, as DeCosta pointed out Monday, including penalties and an offensive line that needs to protect the quarterback better. But the two biggest are offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Jackson’s accuracy.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens run the nine patterns associated with what used to be known as the “passing tree,” but they don’t. The Ravens haven’t run a well-executed deep comeback route since receivers Derrick Mason and Steve Smith Sr. were on the roster. Plus, it’s not about the concepts, but using them in combination to attack the entire field, not just the middle.

This criticism of Roman’s offense is nothing new. He heard the same complaints when he was dialing up the plays in San Francisco and Buffalo.

Jackson does have baggage: As for Jackson, he has similar baggage. He can’t throw outside the numbers. If you take away his ability to run or scramble, he can’t win with his arm. His throwing mechanics are sloppy, just as they were coming out of Louisville.

“I would think that Lamar being who Lamar is, Lamar wants to improve,” DeCosta said. “I want to improve, too. We all want to improve. You wouldn’t be in this business unless you just constantly want to get better, just like you guys. So, that’s definitely … That goes without, I think, saying, that we all want to get better. That’s on the quarterback [and] that’s on the receivers. As far as the scheme and all of those types of things, that’s the coaching staff, that’s the players [and] that’s [offensive coordinator] Greg Roman.”

In three years, that’s hasn’t happened, not to the point of great success. That’s why the Ravens have to be careful in giving Jackson a new contract.

It’s one thing to reasonably reward a player for what he has done, but not at the cost of possibly mortgaging away the team’s future.