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Ravens send definitive message to Lamar Jackson with non-exclusive franchise tag

In a surprising move, the Baltimore Ravens have cracked the door open for Lamar Jackson's potential departure this offseason.

That’s the message the team conveyed on Tuesday, when it applied the non-exclusive franchise tag to Jackson and opened up the opportunity for him to shop himself to potential free agent suitors. The non-exclusive tag locks Jackson into a guaranteed salary of $32.4 million in 2023 if he returns to Baltimore without working out a long-term extension either with the Ravens or another team. That’s a significantly smaller commitment to Jackson than the exclusive tag, which is currently projected at $45.2 million for 2023 — but also would have barred him from engaging in negotiations with other NFL teams. Now the two sides have taken another awkward step in their stuttering negotiations, with the Ravens essentially saving nearly $13 million in salary in 2023 while simultaneously giving Jackson the opportunity to go sign a mammoth extension elsewhere.

The Ravens have applied the non-exclusive franchise tag to Lamar Jackson, allowing him to negotiate with other teams. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
The Ravens have applied the non-exclusive franchise tag to Lamar Jackson, allowing him to negotiate with other teams. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) (Scott Taetsch via Getty Images)

Multiple sources familiar with the negotiation have told Yahoo Sports that the two sides remain far apart on a long-term extension, with Jackson pursuing a deal similar to the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Ravens haven’t been inclined to get close to that number. Now they’re apparently willing to let another team take a crack at working out a deal with Jackson. Should that happen, the Ravens will have an opportunity to match whatever contract Jackson strikes up with another franchise, or refuse to match it and receive two first-round picks in return.

Whatever happens next, what can’t be denied is that Baltimore sent a message with the type of tag it chose. Had the Ravens applied the exclusive tag instead, it would have been another large step in the direction of insisting on keeping Jackson in the fold, effectively cutting off his ability to weigh options elsewhere. That said, applying the non-exclusive tag could also theoretically be a tactic to kickstart stalled negotiations — essentially allowing another team a chance to crack the math of exactly what Jackson would agree to in a long-term deal, then stepping in and matching the numbers. That’s a risky proposition, letting other teams attempt to set a contractual table for an elite player, but it also might be an outside-the-box answer to try and get something done after a frustrating dance over the last year. Even if that’s the tactic, applying the much less aggressive salary scale of the non-exclusive tag will certainly be an eyebrow-raising moment across the league.

Jackson is looking at a lower salary than the $45 million or so he'd have made under the exclusive tag (the final number won't be locked in until April), but the tradeoff is the freedom to shop himself around in free agency to see if he can land the long-term deal that he couldn’t work out with the Ravens. Had Baltimore used its exclusive tag, it would have been the only franchise allowed to continue negotiating with Jackson, although the Ravens could still have fielded trade offers for him.

Now that the non-exclusive tag has been applied, the two-year cash ramifications (if Jackson remains in Baltimore) are significant. If the Ravens apply a second straight franchise tag in 2024, that tag will trigger a 20 percent hike over Jackson’s previous salary. That means if the Ravens had used the exclusive tag this week, Jackson could have been in line for as much as $54 million in a one-year guaranteed salary in 2024 if the Ravens had tagged him again. Since Baltimore applied the non-exclusive tag, his $32.4 million salary in 2023 would translate into a $38.9 million salary in 2024 with a second straight tag applied.

From the perspective of both players and high-end quarterbacks, that’s part of what makes the disparity between the exclusive and non-exclusive tags so significant. In Jackson’s case, the non-exclusive tag translates into a two-year cash commitment (again, if Jackson remains in Baltimore) of roughly $71.3 million in salary for 2023 and 2024. If the Ravens had chosen the exclusive franchise tag, that total two-year cash outlay could have been more than $99 million. That’s a difference of roughly $28 million in guaranteed salary over two years between the two tags.

With that less aggressive two-year commitment now in play, the negotiation tips back into Jackson’s direction, as he must decide whether to sign the tag or potentially hold out this offseason and push for a trade as he seeks a long-term deal.