The NFL franchise tag deadline is 4 p.m. Tuesday, and all eyes are expected to be on the Ravens.
It’s the date by which Baltimore has to apply the franchise tag to star quarterback Lamar Jackson to keep him from becoming a free agent. In the absence of hints that a long-term deal with Jackson is imminent, most NFL observers expect the Ravens to use the tag to buy time.
Here’s what you need to know about Jackson, the Ravens and the franchise tag.
What is the franchise tag?
Each team can designate one player with the franchise tag, guaranteeing him a premium salary for his position.
There are two types of franchise tags — the exclusive tag and nonexclusive tag.
Under the exclusive tag, teams must offer the player a one-year contract at no less than either the average of the top-five salaries at that player’s position based on the league’s contracts in April or 120% of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. This number is projected to be about $45 million for a quarterback in 2023.
Under the nonexclusive tag, teams must offer a one-year contract at no less than the average of the top-five salary cap hits of that player’s positions or 120% of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. For quarterbacks, this number is projected to be just over $32 million in 2023. But with this designation, other NFL teams still can negotiate with the player.
Most teams opt for the exclusive tag, wishing to keep their star players off the free market entirely. Teams have generally tried to avoid having franchise quarterbacks play under the tag because the massive salary cap hit makes it difficult to do other business. But it has happened with two quarterbacks: with Dak Prescott in Dallas in 2020 and Kirk Cousins in Washington in 2016 and 2017. Prescott ultimately signed an extension with the Cowboys. Cousins hit free agency in his prime and signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta has said the team could fit $45 million for Jackson into its 2023 salary cap if there’s no other palatable option. “Those are big, big numbers,” he said at his season-ending news conference with coach John Harbaugh in January. “We’re fortunate, I think, that we have a better salary cap [situation] than most. We have a lot more room than most teams do, which was by design three or four years ago.”
The Ravens also could go the nonexclusive route, which would give Jackson the freedom to sign an offer sheet with another team. Baltimore would have five days to match any offer and would receive two first-round picks as compensation if Jackson goes to another team.
DeCosta said in January that he has weighed the exclusive vs. nonexclusive tag question every day. We’ll find out by 4 p.m. Tuesday what he decided.
What are some other differences between the exclusive and nonexclusive tag?
With that greater control of the exclusive tag comes a higher price. The tag would keep Jackson from negotiating with other teams and, barring a trade or a Jackson holding out, ensure he plays in Baltimore in 2023.
The nonexclusive tag is cheaper but comes with risk. If Jackson were allowed to shop for deals with other teams, he might learn that no one is willing to match or exceed the fully guaranteed $230 million Deshaun Watson received from the Cleveland Browns last offseason. Perhaps that knowledge would bring his negotiations with the Ravens to a head. But what if a competing suitor frontloaded its offer in a manner that would be difficult for the Ravens to match? In that case, the Ravens would be left with two draft picks that might be worth less than the haul DeCosta could have obtained if he dangled Jackson on the trade market.
If Jackson gets tagged, then what?
Both Harbaugh and DeCosta have been tight-lipped about trading the star quarterback, but a massive trade would be on DeCosta’s menu of choices assuming the Ravens use the franchise tag on Jackson. He’s willing to make bold moves with key players as we saw when he flipped tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and wide receiver Marquise Brown, both unsatisfied with their roles on the Ravens, for first-round draft picks. Of course, a Jackson deal would be on a whole different scale; he’s one of the most important players in franchise history and, at the prime age of 26, one of the most electrifying talents in the NFL. In a quarterback-obsessed league, teams almost always pony up to keep such players.
But if the Ravens do not see a path to an extension, DeCosta would have to contemplate how much draft capital he could obtain for Jackson and whether it would put him in position to choose a successor at quarterback.
The Ravens, of course, also could sign Jackson to a long-term deal. July 15 is the deadline for reaching an extension before the franchise tag locks in for 2023. Of the eight players tagged last offseason, four reached deals before that cutoff. Jackson’s former teammate, Brown, was among those who played under the tag, and he won a Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs. Already, the Commanders placed the tag on defensive tackle Daron Payne for 2023 and the Cowboys reportedly tagged running back Tony Pollard.
Harbaugh and DeCosta did not give specifics of negotiations Wednesday at the NFL scouting combine, but they said they are optimistic that a deal will get done.
DeCosta has said his driving goal is to reach an extension with the quarterback around whom the Ravens have built their offense and many of their future plans. But he offered no illusion in January that these renewed negotiations would be any easier than the talks that failed to produce an extension before last season. We don’t know the exact numbers, but multiple reports have said Jackson, who represents himself, is seeking a record-setting guaranteed deal and that the Ravens have stopped significantly short of meeting his price.
The Ravens have used the tag on seven players over the years, and several have played full seasons under it. The most recently example was outside linebacker Matthew Judon in 2020. But they have never gone this route with a quarterback.
After a franchise tag, Jackson could still hold out
By using the exclusive tag, which is the expected scenario, the Ravens would be ensuring Jackson is under contact and play in Baltimore next season. But Jackson would be under no obligation to sign the tag quickly. He could hold out for some or most of training camp to signal his dissatisfaction with the state of negotiations.
Jackson could refuse to sign the tag and sit out the entire season, as running back Le’Veon Bell did with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018. But Bell’s holdout was widely viewed as a disaster, and no other stars have followed his example.
Assuming Jackson would show up at some point, the Ravens could play the 2023 season with him as their quarterback and with his unresolved contract situation hovering over everything they do. They’re used to it by now. And we could be right back here at this time next year, asking all the same questions.