The Lamar Jackson FAQ: Making Sense of the Nonexclusive Franchise Tag
At first glance, the NFL franchise deadline passed without much surprise. The Giants wanted to renew Daniel Jones to tag Saquon Barkley and that’s what happened. The Ravens wanted to get an extension with Lamar Jackson, and if they couldn’t do it, they were going to tag him. And so it happened.
Only, it’s not that easy.
The Ravens didn’t label Lamar Jackson as an exclusive franchise—they labeled him as a non-exclusive franchise.
So what does the non-exclusive tag do and why did the Ravens and Lamar need it here? Let’s look at hypothetical questions and answers.
What did the Crows just do?
Ravens posted non-exclusive franchise tag on Lamar Jackson. It’s easier to understand the non-exclusive tag by going through exclusive mark first.
The exclusive franchise tag guarantees the player a one-year deal at a non-negotiable price. This prevents the player from becoming a free agent this season; when their one-year franchise deal expires, they are entitled to free agency again, and the whole process starts all over again. Washington Command placed an exclusive tag on Kirk Cousins back in 2017, after he was already on a non-exclusive tag in 2016.
Unlike the exclusive franchise tag, the non-exclusive franchise tag does not interfere the player from soliciting competing free-will deals from other teams – at least not entirely. Lamar can meet other teams on March 13, two days before free agency starts, and if he gets a free agent offer he likes from another team, he can sign this offer sheet. At that time, the Ravens will be given a five-day period to match this offer sheet and keep Lamar on their team. If they did not match the offer, Lamar would sign with his new team and the new team would send the Ravens two first-round picks as compensation.
Because a non-exclusive tag gives the player some freedom, it costs the team less than an exclusive tag. The quarterback’s exclusive tag this season was about $45 million in one year; the non-exclusive tag is only $32.4 million. To put it into perspective, hitting the $45 million ceiling would make Lamar the fourth-highest-paid quarterback (by total caps) in 2023. On the other hand, the tag’s non-exclusive figure of $32.4 million is in ninth place. Most franchise tags used in the league are not exclusive tags, because generally no other team is willing to spend those two extra first-round picks to sign a free agent. But with a top quarterback like Lamar, using a non-exclusive tag is a little riskier.
Okay, that was very confusing. Shouldn’t you be explaining this?
Yes, it’s hard. Let’s explore this with an example.
Now that Lamar has received a non-exclusive tag, he can start negotiations with other teams on March 13th. Several teams make sense as Lamar’s landing points – Texans, Titans, Panthers, Colts, or Lions. We’ll talk about them a little later.
Let’s say Lamar gets offers from the Panthers, the Texans, and the Titans. Like any other free agent, Lamar had to choose which of the three offers to sign. Let’s pretend the Texans’ best offer is $250 million over five years with $150 million guaranteed. So, Lamar signs the sheet with the Texans.
Lamar notifies the Ravens that he has signed with the Texans. The Ravens now have five days to sign Lamar to the same contract as the Texans, a five-year, $250 million deal with $150 million guaranteed. If the Ravens decide to honor the Texans’ deal, Lamar will remain a Raven (and be paid $250 million over five years with $150 million guaranteed) and the Texans will have to look elsewhere for their quarterback.
Wait, wait, wait. Why don’t the Texans just offer Lamar an insane contract? One that the Ravens literally can’t match?
Great question, me.
Teams looking to sign Lamar are prohibited from including “poison pills” in their contract, essentially terms that the Ravens are inherently unable to meet. The collective agreement defines poison pills as follows:
Article 9, Section 3.e.iii
Notwithstanding subsections (i) and (ii) above, no Offer Sheet may contain Basic Terms creating rights or obligations for the Old Club that differ in any way (including, but not limited to, the amount of compensation to be paid, the circumstances under which compensation will be guaranteed, or circumstances under which other contractual rights may or may not be vested) from the rights or obligations that such Basic Condition would create for the Club renewing the Offer List (i.e. no “poison pills”).
In simple terms, a team offering Lamar a contract cannot include a clause that reads: “Lamar will receive a $100 million signing bonus if the team he plays for does not have purple as their primary color and does not use bird as a talisman. , and plays in Maryland, in which case he will receive a $200 million signing bonus.”
This is a silly example, of course, but an important caveat. When Seahawks quarterback Steve Hutchinson was signed to a transition tag instead of a franchise tag in 2006., the Vikings offered him a contract that stipulated that his entire deal would be guaranteed if he had another linesman on his team making more money than him. Minnesota didn’t have a higher-earning lineman than Hutchinson, but Seattle, who had to match the offer list verbatim, did. The Minnesota offer contained a poison pill—a fundamental difference in Hutchinson’s contract if he were a Viking and not a Seahawk—and with the sheets offered to Lamar, that kind of stupid thing couldn’t happen.
Can the team that proposed to Lamar still sign a deal with him that the Ravens can’t fulfill because of their cap situation?
Now we cook on gas.
The Ravens generally have a good cap situation. With $32.4 million of Lamar’s non-exclusive franchise on its books, Spotrac currently forecasts the Ravens with an $8.3 million negative headroom for the 2023 season, but the careful accounting and contract shuffling needed to make it into the plus are not complex. The Ravens have enough room to take on Lamar’s $32.4 million cap. They’ll be fine.
But other teams have a lot more room to work in 2023. Bears and Falcons, two teams likely not in Lamar’s prank (Bears due to their commitment to Justin Fields, and Falcons due to today’s explicit message that they are not in Lamar’s prank ). Lamar draw) have the most predicted spots in the league. The Texans, Raiders, Patriots, Titans and Lions are among the top 10 teams in the predicted 2023 space – and they could all reasonably go after Lamar.
These teams are allowed to structure the Lamar deal however they like and can try to create a structure that will make it harder for the Ravens to fulfill the contract. Let’s say the Texans deal for Lamar gives a huge roster bonus in 2023, a huge amount of guaranteed money that dramatically increases his first-year cap to $55 million, the highest single-season cap of any quarterback. If the Ravens were to live up to the Texans’ offer, they had to be able to take that cap hit. It’s a lot harder for the Ravens than it is for the Texans, who currently have $42 million in their 2023 cap to play with.
But this is much easier said than done. The Texans don’t want to spend their entire 2023 cap spot securing Lamar – they have a ton of gaps to fill in the roster, and the second overall pick could turn out to be a really good quarterback.
Lamar may also not want to play the game. Lamar is clearly looking for a fully guaranteed deal— one that is similar to the deal signed by Deshawn Watson in Cleveland: five years, $230 million, full guarantee. How committed Lamar is to that goal compared to his frustration with Baltimore and his motivation to walk away from this franchise, I can only guess. Eat a lot of moving parts here.
Is that why Ravens use this non-exclusive tag? Because Lamar wants a fully guaranteed deal?
Quite a bit of. The non-exclusive tag, since it allows the player to sign contracts with other teams, is essentially an open challenge. “We don’t want to make this deal with you, and you know what? We also don’t think anyone would be willing to make this deal with you.” If Lamar hadn’t held the line on a fully guaranteed deal, the Ravens would have signed him for an extension. And if the Ravens believed another the teams were going to sign Lamar to the fully guaranteed deal he asks for, they would use the franchise’s exclusive tag to stop him from negotiating with other teams.
It’s worth noting that the owners absolutely do not want fully guaranteed deals to become standard operating procedure in the NFL – even for the best quarterbacks. This was stated by Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti at league meetings last year.“Damn, I wish [the Browns] didn’t guarantee everything [Deshaun Watson] contract. I don’t know if he should be the first to get a fully guaranteed contract. For me, this is something innovative, and it will complicate negotiations with others.”
No owner wants to sign a fully guaranteed deal with Lamar. In doing so, they would demonstrate to other top quarterbacks that if they demanded a fully guaranteed deal, they would get it—and which takes more money from owners, for whom fully guaranteed deals are more expensive. In the dark circle of NFL owners, a dude signing a fully guaranteed deal with Lamar will ruin the party.
It’s not just a fight…