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Around the NFL, from Baltimore to San Francisco to Pittsburgh

The latest on Lamar Jackson’s contract impasse, Jimmy Garoppolo’s return to the 49ers and the Steelers quarterbacks

A composite image showing Lamar Jackson, Jimmy Garoppolo and Mitch Trubisky.
Lamar Jackson, Jimmy Garoppolo and Mitch Trubisky will all be in the spotlight this season. (Kevin Richardson/The Baltimore Sun via AP; Jeff Chiu/AP and Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
10 min

The Baltimore Ravens’ refusal to guarantee all of quarterback Lamar Jackson’s next contract — or even close to all of it — is at the core of the impasse between the team and its superstar, according to multiple people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely. And that probably will result in an exclusive-rights franchise tag being placed on the player in 2023.

Jackson, the unanimous 2019 NFL MVP, enters Week 1 on a fifth-year option from his rookie contract, paying him roughly $23 million, and the sides have not been able to make progress toward a new pact, with philosophical differences about guarantees stalling the efforts. Deshaun Watson’s fully guaranteed deal with the Cleveland Browns, worth $230 million, furthered Jackson’s belief that he should be compensated similarly; Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti spoke publicly at the NFL league meetings this spring about his reluctance to offer such a deal, and privately he has been unwilling to budge on the issue, those individuals familiar with the situation said.

Jackson, the 32nd pick in the 2018 draft, said this week that his deadline for a new deal was Friday, and that morning the team said there wouldn’t be a deal before the start of the season. Jackson, who does not have formal contract representation, has said he will keep his focus on football once the regular season begins. The deal the Ravens offered him throughout the summer would have run through 2027, according to those individuals, but the team would fully guarantee only the first three years of that offer, leaving the sides tens of millions of dollars apart.

Ravens say they won’t reach deal with Lamar Jackson before the season

Jackson and the Ravens maintained a dialogue leading up to Week 1, with the individuals indicating that Baltimore increased the financial package and bolstered its offer on injury guarantees but that the franchise never approached even $200 million in full guarantees, let alone the $230 million Watson secured.

“He believes he deserves a fully guaranteed contract. It’s as simple as that,” one of the individuals said.

An exclusive-rights franchise tag in 2023 projects between $40 million and $43 million, all of it guaranteed, and a second tag would require a 20 percent raise for 2024. Having Jackson play on a third tag, with another 50 percent raise, is untenable. The deadline to extend a player on a 2023 franchise tag is next July, and those players’ salaries count fully against the salary cap, a cumbersome deterrent.

Several individuals close to Jackson indicated that they would be surprised if the quarterback capitulated. Jackson, they made clear, is keenly aware that playing out the franchise tag process netted former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins — a far inferior player — a then-record deal with three fully guaranteed years in Minnesota, plus nearly $70 million more in guarantees after a restructuring. And Jackson also realizes that two franchise tags would essentially guarantee him the right to be an unrestricted free agent.

Jackson, the individuals noted, hasn’t been overly concerned about the injury risk when playing out his rookie contract. The sides never got close to a new deal before the 2021 season, either, the individuals noted — with the Ravens offering around $35 million a year before the Bills signed star Josh Allen for around $43 million a year — so they don’t anticipate him flinching now.

Other NFL owners are hoping that Bisciotti sticks to his stance. There is a concerted effort among ownership to make the Watson deal look like an outlier, according to multiple individuals who have discussed the matter with owners. The Broncos refused to include full guarantees in their extension with Russell Wilson, and with premier young quarterbacks such as Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert eligible for new deals after this season, this issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

While the negotiations between the Ravens and Jackson were amicable, those individuals familiar with the process indicated that neither side seemed willing to compromise on this core issue. The Ravens could always approach him during the season, no matter his deadline or Friday’s statement. But several rival executives — who cannot publicly speak about another team’s contract situations because of NFL tampering regulations — indicated they would be surprised if that happened.

“Unless you’re giving him what he wants, you have to respect his deadline,” one high-ranking official with another team said. “It’s not like you can just go to his agent. There is no agent. He’s playing quarterback for you every week. I think you respect his wishes here and see what you can get done next year.”

What’s behind Jimmy Garoppolo’s new deal?

Jimmy Garoppolo’s reworked contract with the 49ers, which includes significant playing time and performance bonuses, has been interpreted around the NFL as a strong indication that he will see the field soon unless youngster Trey Lance has a quick start to the season.

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The 49ers welcomed back Garoppolo — who helped them reach a Super Bowl after the 2019 season — late last month after an offseason in which he was excused from the team facility as he recovered from shoulder surgery and Lance, the third overall pick in 2021, was anointed the starter. San Francisco officials went to lengths to convey that bringing Garoppolo back — on a deal that reduced his base salary from around $24 million to around $7 million — was not an indication of Lance’s readiness to perform at a high level, but several individuals close to that situation scoffed at that notion, as did others around the league.

“Look at the level of detail that went into that contract,” one NFL team’s contract negotiator said. “That’s not the kind of thing you do for your backup, right before your raw quarterback makes his first Week 1 start, if you aren’t concerned about him. The deal is structured the way it is because Garoppolo is likely to play. Or they expect him to play. My guess is sooner rather than later.”

One NFL GM said: “It’s not what you say; it’s what you do and when you do it. A deal like that doesn’t come together overnight, and it got done right before the season. That tells you all you need to know. They think they need their backup to play.”

Lance has not played much football since high school, with the pandemic taking away almost all of his final season at North Dakota State. His shaky performance in the final preseason game precipitated what had been a fluid process between Garoppolo and the team reaching its conclusion, according to individuals with knowledge of the situation. From Garoppolo’s standpoint, it was preferable for him to stay with a coach, a team and a system he knows — and with a franchise that was just in the playoffs a year ago — than risk ending up with a bad team via trade or on the open market, had the 49ers released him.

Colts’ Quenton Nelson has a huge payday in his future

Will Colts star offensive lineman Quenton Nelson become the highest paid guard in the history of the game? Quite possibly.

Nelson has performed to the all-pro standard expected of him after he was drafted sixth overall in 2018, and he is scheduled to make $13.754 million on a fifth-year option, far below the compensation warranted by a player of his caliber. Multiple individuals with knowledge of the situation indicated that the sides have been trying to get a deal done before the team’s season kicks off.

There is an expectation among other team executives and agents that Nelson’s pact will ultimately net him $20 million a season, which would be a record for an interior lineman and reset compensation levels at that position. Nelson would in essence be paid as a quality tackle; his representatives have argued that he is on a Hall of Fame path and is the type of generational player who merits such a new standard.

It is not uncommon for deals of this magnitude to be consummated just before the season begins — and before the player assumes a significant injury risk. Given Nelson’s importance to the Colts and the team’s expectations of competing for a playoff spot in the AFC, several people around the league predicted a deal would get done by Sunday morning.

In Pittsburgh, Mitch Trubisky is ‘the leader of this team’

Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin waited until shortly before the start of the regular season to announce veteran Mitch Trubisky as his starter, but it was already well established within the franchise that first-round pick Kenny Pickett was headed for a backup role.

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Several individuals involved in the team’s preseason work, who were not authorized to speak about playing-time decisions, said that there was an obvious difference behind the scenes in how other players responded to the Steelers’ quarterbacks and thus in whom was best positioned to lead them Week 1.

“Mitch was the leader of this team,” one individual said. “You could see that right away. The guys love him: the way he handles himself, the kind of person he is. You could see it. Nothing against Kenny or Mason [Rudolph], but it was just different with Mitch, how badly everyone wants to play for him.”

The former first-round pick’s tenure in Chicago quickly went south, and many executives around the league discount him as a viable long-term starting option. The Steelers do not have a set timetable for the inevitable transition to Pickett, and opinions vary about how effective Trubisky can be. The team’s offensive line play was suspect in the preseason and could prove to be a major hindrance, leading some who have scouted the Steelers to believe the team will take its time going to the rookie.

“Did you see the preseason offensive line film?” one scout who advanced the Steelers this summer said. “And that’s with Tomlin playing the guys he thinks are his starters. He’s old-school that way. It’s ugly for them up front. Would you really be in a hurry to put your first-round pick, the guy you think can be the heir apparent to Ben [Roethlisberger], behind that? Mitch is going to take his lumps. He’s going to earn his money there.”

Pickett has made a strong impression on coaches and officials in Pittsburgh and did nothing to make them think he doesn’t have the trappings of a winning quarterback. But expect the focus to be on Trubisky for at least the first four to six weeks of the season.