The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement prohibits teams from renegotiating contracts with drafted players until they have completed three seasons. That clause has given teams a built-in excuse to leverage the most undervalued contracts in the NFL: quality starting quarterbacks who make $2 million to $3 million a year for a position that merits roughly $25 million a year.
The window for changing that paradigm for three of those young quarterbacks opened this offseason. One, Josh Allen, received a megacontract from the Bills. But as of this writing, the Browns and Ravens continue to extract extraordinary value from Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, respectively, playing on rookie contracts.
Perhaps the teams are content to risk the market’s rising, knowing they still have two years of contract control, including a fifth-year team option. And the players and agents also know the market is only going up and, more importantly, the injury risk is not what it is made out to be due to one name: Dak Prescott. He signed an eye-popping contract with the Cowboys this offseason—the best contract I have seen for a young quarterback—only months after a gruesome, season-ending injury. Whatever the reason, Mayfield and Jackson continue to be the faces of their franchises while playing at exceedingly below-market rates.
Jackson’s contract status is particularly interesting.
Jackson’s no-agent risk
Jackson is not only a unique player on the field, with his singular abilities, but has also become a unique study in the business of football. The 2019 MVP is one of a few NFL players who has not used a traditional player agent to negotiate his contract, both in negotiating his rookie contract and—as all indications show—in his second contract.
Not using an agent to negotiate his rookie contract presented only limited risk, as the CBA predetermines the money in each draft “slot,” and Jackson negotiated his fair “slot.” The CBA, however, does not prenegotiate items such as contract language and bonus payment terms, so hopefully Jackson had a professional look over the contract.
Now the stakes are raised; instead of a $10 million contract, we are now talking about more than a $100 million-plus contract, one that will likely take Jackson through the prime of his career, if not his whole career. However, as much as I respect the role that agents serve (as a former agent myself), I am not here to “tsk, tsk” Jackson, as many have, for not using an agent in the traditional sense or to condescendingly criticize him for allowing so much risk.
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Equal risk for Ravens
My strong opinion here is this: There is as much incentive for the Ravens as there is for Jackson to do a fair and mutually favorable deal.
Jackson’s ability to negotiate a “fair” contract is only partly a function of his doing. The bigger issue, in my mind, is what kind of negotiation this has become, or will become, from the Ravens’ side of the table.
Players, and, more importantly, people around players talk about player contracts all the time. I have seen what I call the “whisper crews” around players for 30 years, telling them that they aren’t getting what they deserve from the team, potentially causing friction with both the current agent and the team. Whisper crews can be a dangerous thing.
The last thing the Ravens should want to do with Jackson is to negotiate a below-market contract just because they can. Believe me, and I know this from experience (see below): Taking advantage of the circumstances of Jackson’s not having an agent would not work in the Ravens’ favor long term. (I worry about this situation with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but that is another conversation.) Were Jackson to start seeing the market pass him by, disillusionment with the team will come, and there will be no agent to blame.
The Eagles have just secured two very team-friendly deals, for offensive tackle Jordan Malaita and defensive end Josh Sweat. The market is sure to pass those deals by, and those players may become disillusioned with their contracts. But as important as those positions are, they are not quarterbacks. Teams can deal with disgruntled players at some level; but dealing with it at the quarterback position is painful.
Lamar Jackson is the face of the Ravens; he should be mightily rewarded and feel good about that contract for a long time to come.
Bittersweet memories of the agentless
When I think about players’ negotiating without an agent, it evokes some bittersweet memories.
I came to the Packers after a decade as an agent myself and I found that experience invaluable. I knew what the other side was thinking in negotiations and could easily determine where the pain points in the negotiation would be. But I had to realize the hard truth that even though I was a former agent and empathetic to players, I was now working for the other side of the labor-management equation. This led to some painful experiences.
Living in a fishbowl in Green Bay, we all—players, coaches, staff—got to know each other very well, better than any other NFL team get to know each other. I started to encounter some players that felt comfortable enough with me that they wanted to negotiate directly with me, without an agent. My initial reaction was positive: I was flattered players felt that way and looked forward to the experience. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way otherwise.
Contract negotiations and human value can be very emotional. The players saw things very simply: Another team paid player X; they thought they were better than Player X, therefore I should pay them more than Player X. Simple! My nuanced discussions about Player X’s being closer to free agency or on a team with a journeyman quarterback while we had Brett Favre, etc. did not land well. They heard me saying that the Packers didn’t feel as good about them as the other team did about Player X.
I experienced seeing players who negotiated with me directly, without an agent, feeling hurt and insulted. I not only lost relationships, but my wife and kids lost relationships with their wives and kids. It was one of the tougher experiences that I had in negotiating contracts for the Packers. I learned to truly appreciate the value of an agent as a buffer. That is a vital role that they serve in a more detached space than the player.
Thus, as the Ravens negotiate directly with Jackson, I empathize with both sides. Negotiations about human worth are tricky and raw, especially for someone as valuable as Jackson. The last thing the Ravens should do is upset that relationship by taking advantage of the lack of a professional negotiator. Players without agents take on some risk for themselves but also pose a significant risk for their teams, especially if they are important players.
The Ravens need to do right by Jackson, agent or not.
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