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What it might take to pry Lamar Jackson from the Ravens

Lamar Jackson missed the final five games of the regular season and the Ravens' one playoff game, leaving his future unclear. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

It’s fair to wonder whether Lamar Jackson will appear in the Baltimore Ravens’ facility again. His future with the franchise that drafted him with the final pick of the first round in 2018 has long been murky, and nothing that has transpired recently portends a return.

The situation is growing uglier by the day — from his social media posts trying to illuminate the significance of his injury to teammates opining about his health and ability to perform in the playoffs to the Ravens’ silence about it all as their campaign spiraled, again, with three straight losses to close the season. Jackson wasn’t in the traveling party to Cincinnati for Sunday’s opening-round loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, he wasn’t seen by the media at locker clean-out day Monday, and plugged-in executives and contract negotiators have suggested for weeks that it appears Jackson’s tenure with the Ravens is nearing its end.

What has always been clear is that Jackson was going to get a franchise tag next month — almost certainly an exclusive designation worth around $45 million for 2023. The sides have never been close to a deal on a new contract in the past, and there is no evidence pointing to that outcome now. Rival teams perceive Jackson to be available, executives told me, with some officials I spoke to examining the assets and positions that have been favored by Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta for potential trade fits.

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For starters, those executives believe getting Jackson out of the AFC would be ideal for Baltimore and that landing some proven young talent in return — not only draft picks — would be the Ravens’ preference. (Baltimore’s draft record has been spotty at best the past three years.) The Ravens have prioritized the secondary in team building, investing heavy draft capital in cornerbacks and safeties. The Ravens led the NFL with nearly $41 million in salary cap space spent on the secondary in 2022, per Spotrac, while spending more than $56 million on that defensive backfield, ranking third. It’s worth noting the Ravens, a team that lives in nickel coverage, have just one proven cornerback, Marlon Humphrey, under contract for 2023. And, obviously, landing a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft would be appealing, to say nothing of other high draft picks.

“You’ve got to find an owner who hasn’t been able to find his guy [at quarterback] and won’t be scared off by the price tag,” said one general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he’s not permitted to speak publicly about players on other rosters. “And it’s probably a team that is going into next year on the brink. It’s kind of a make-or-break year for the coach or the GM.”

It’s not like the Houston Texans, Las Vegas Raiders, New York Jets or Miami Dolphins couldn’t make such a deal work, but the executives I spoke with kept coming back to two NFC South teams as potential Jackson landing spots: the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. Both missed out on Deshaun Watson a year ago — but not without a significant fight. Both have a need at quarterback, both markets could use a jolt, and neither owner is afraid to spend. The Falcons already have a young play-caller/quarterback guru type in Arthur Smith as their coach, and I keep hearing that Panthers owner David Tepper has been intrigued by such figures during his coaching search.

Would Tepper part with rising star cornerback Jaycee Horn, the No. 9 pick, a future first-round pick and a future second-round pick for Jackson? That seems reasonable. Atlanta, never more of a pro football town than when Michael Vick was running its offense, could offer rising star cornerback A.J. Terrell, the No. 8 pick, future picks in 2023 and maybe even aging defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who would add bona fide chops to the interior of Baltimore’s defensive line, especially if Calais Campbell retires.

“That’s the kind of deal Eric makes,” the GM said. “Really, all four teams in [the NFC South], you could see it. I just don’t think the Saints could make it work with their cap [issues]. But I think Tampa [Bay] would spend, and it’s over for [Tom] Brady there.”

Jackson will be able to dictate where he goes, as Watson did; he would need to agree to a long-term extension with his next club to consummate any trade. While on the franchise tag, he would not get paid until Week 1 of next season, and he could wait until then to sign that contract tender, in essence missing offseason work and training camp as the Ravens inevitably install a new offense with a new coordinator.

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After the events of the past week, with the potential for the situation to get even messier in the media, I suspect the Ravens would prefer to wrap this up well before the draft, let alone the July deadline to extend a player on the franchise tag. Renewed with draft capital from a Jackson trade — Baltimore dealt its second- and fifth-round picks for linebacker Roquan Smith midseason — the Ravens could pursue Jimmy Garoppolo as a stopgap quarterback or land Derek Carr or Ryan Tannehill in a low-cost trade. In the meantime, they could be grooming a young quarterback — potentially one taken with a top-10 pick.

As complicated as such scenarios may seem, given all that has transpired between this front office and the 2019 MVP, it could be easier to facilitate those deals than it has been to negotiate a long-term agreement with Jackson.

Notes from around the league

If Frank Reich doesn’t land a head coaching gig, keep a close eye on opportunities with the Los Angeles Rams’ staff. As we told you weeks ago, Sean McVay is year-to-year as head coach despite his pledge to return next season. It would be surprising for him to stay beyond 2023, and rival teams think the Rams want to get their next guy on board now, rather than tear it up and start over next year. The Rams shocked teams by deciding to pick up quarterback Matthew Stafford’s contract bonus, guaranteeing his 2024 salary. “I hear they want the next guy to be on staff this year,” said one personnel executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about another club. “Whoever they hire as [offensive coordinator] has a chance to be the next [head coach].” There are rumblings about former Jets coordinator Mike LaFleur ending up with the Rams, but Reich could join the team as associate head coach/offense — or whatever job title is necessary to secure his services. …

Coaches and GMs around the league were skeptical that the Spanos family, which owns the Los Angeles Chargers, would spend big for a proven, winning coach after Brandon Staley’s not-entirely-shocking implosion in the first round. But make no mistake: That’s a job Sean Payton, the former Saints coach, would have coveted. “That’s where he’s really wanted to be all along,” one GM said before the Chargers dismissed offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi on Tuesday. …

It’s a matter of when Rams star cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Arizona Cardinals star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins are traded, not if. And the GMs I have spoken to don’t believe those teams will get anywhere near the compensation that their fans might expect.

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