Editor note: Lamar Jackson took to social media on March 27 to indicate that he has requested a trade from the Baltimore Ravens. More on that here.
It seems we’ve seen every think-piece, column, narrative and agenda published about Lamar Jackson in recent weeks. Screeds decrying his lack of an agent and monologues applauding it.
We’ve seen every conspiratorial and tin foil hat angle about how the NFL “is really trying to collude against him” which is ludicrous when the evidence is examined.
The NFL owners may not want to pay out fully guaranteed deals like the Cleveland Browns did with Deshaun Watson, but Jackson himself has said that’s not what he’s seeking. Maybe that’s the problem. I spoke with an NFC decision maker, and he said the thing I’ve wondered, “we don’t actually know what he (Jackson) wants.”
I don’t know if that particular executive’s experience in the Lamar Jackson situation is unique, or the experience of everyone else. But they don’t know where to start with negotiations and that’s only the tip of the problem in a pursuit of Jackson.
Lamar Jackson doesn’t have an agent, and that is his right. There are several players that have to varying degrees of “success” navigated the challenge themselves. Houston Texans star left tackle Laremy Tunsil is the most recent, though he was guided/helped by what we’ll call a shadowy agent type who isn’t certified by the NFLPA before signing a record-breaking contract extension recently.
The agent game can be a slimy world. I understand anyone’s reticence to be involved in it. But it has its value too. Having someone work on your stated interest with resources you don’t have, and the experience to navigate a process you know nothing about is inherently valuable.
Lamar Jackson and the agent narrative
The maximum an agent can charge to represent an NFL client is 3%. For a player of Jackson’s caliber and stature, perspective agents would be bidding that figure down. I spoke with four separate agents and asked what they would offer Jackson to represent him. The largest fee figure was 1%.
“Look, he’s clean off-field and there’s no upfront risk. If he’s not charging me to get in the room, it’s all profit. I don’t have to lay out for Combine training and hope he makes it to his second contract? He’s free advertising that I’m his representation, and that brings additional clients.”Unnamed NFL player-agent on Lamar Jackson
While it is self-serving for agents to say Jackson needs an agent, or that him having an agent probably would have this process resolved by now, I do believe those agents have a point. Jackson is limited by his resources and his (lack of) knowledge of the process.
The NFC team decision maker I spoke with said his team hadn’t been contacted by Jackson. They would be interested. “Of course we’d be interested, it’s Lamar Jackson. Yes, we’d have to change the offense to fit him, but you do that for a Lamar Jackson.”
They also don’t know where to start.
“We’ve been operating under the assumption that Baltimore is likely to match whatever offer is put in front of him, so do we really want to go down that road and waste our time? We don’t know that he wants out of Baltimore, we don’t know what it is he’s really looking for and we wouldn’t know where to open negotiations because there’s no starting number that’s been given to me by him.”NFC executive on Lamar Jackson situation
I spoke with someone in the front office of another NFL team, not a decision maker but in the room, and he echoed some of those same sentiments. Teams are not wanting to upset the apple cart in their own quarterback rooms for something they don’t even know is attainable.
In the absence of complete information human brains try to fill in the gaps. The brain is a pattern recognition engine that seeks to qualify and classify and label everything. I don’t know where the “$250 million fully guaranteed” report originated, but Lamar Jackson himself has pushed back on that.
The problem (for at least a few NFL teams) is that he hasn’t set the bar anywhere. Teams don’t know what it is he is prioritizing. It’s not just about the raw dollar amount, it’s also about desired structure.
- Does he want it front loaded with cash to renegotiate in two years?
- Does he want long term stability?
- How much is he willing to build in to safeguard us [an acquiring team] from the injury risk?
- How flexible is he willing to be so we can surround him with the types of players needed to maximize him, and keep them?
- What are the things he values out of the next 8-10 years his career ideally and hopefully lasts?
An agent gives you someone that can communicate those things, and work 31 other teams at the same time to get to the manageable few that can provide what you want. As a player with no help, you just can’t do that, you lack the capability.
A player of Jackson’s unique stature has additional demands on his time that make it even more difficult. But kudos to him for trying. I’m not here to convince Jackson to hire an agent, I’m simply finding that in his case the value outweighs the expense.
Lamar Jackson and negotiating through the media
So what can Jackson do to try to stack the deck in his favor? Well, he’s been active on social media. If you’re going to be the player that breaks the norms on representation, why not break the norms on how you negotiate? Use your Twitter.
Negotiate through the media. Put out a public list of what it is that you’re looking for. You don’t have to call each team and explain if you just post it. You’ve just messaged all 32 teams at the same time. You don’t have to post exact numbers (although you ostensibly could, and why not…) just a general idea of what it is you’re looking for. Use the same media many disdain. Float out figures that way.
It makes sense for teams and agents to be secretive about information at times as that info getting out works against self-interest. It doesn’t for Mr. Jackson. If he wants to operate in secrecy that’s most certainly his prerogative, but there’s no tangible benefit for him to do so. He doesn’t have other clients to protect, nor is he the one who has to bid for himself.
It was interesting to see the rush of uninformed narratives surrounding Jackson when the tag was applied and several teams immediately through media said they weren’t pursuing him.
Many assumed some sort of collusion on the NFL’s part to avoid guaranteed contracts, but the people I spoke to laughed at the idea. “The funding rule makes the idea of guaranteed contracts untenable for most anyway. I imagine that’ll get some scrutiny at the next CBA,” NFL team executive on Jackson situation.
What that exec meant was the NFL’s rule that any guaranteed money in a contract has to be in an escrow account mere weeks after the deal is signed. Contrary to popular belief, many teams don’t have $200 million in cash just lying around. The Bengals and Chargers are both on the verge of huge deals with their quarterbacks and are scrambling to cobble together the cash needed for those contracts.
The Bengals selling stadium naming rights to Paycor for the first time last August serves to illustrate this.
NFL teams didn’t need to “collude” against Jackson to not pay guaranteed deals. The funding rule and CBA all but makes it an impossibility at this juncture.
Teams didn’t have to make a move in the first few days. From a PR perspective you can always walk back “not pursuing” you can’t walk back “pursued and didn’t land.”
As it sits, most everyone I talked to have the same opinion. Namely, that if Lamar Jackson had an agent, this situation would likely already be done. That he is probably costing himself money, and probably not maximizing his market. Obviously, those things are this choice, and if he’s at peace with it who are we to question another man’s decisions on his wallet?
I’d love to see Lamar just open this thing up and negotiate over Twitter. Clarify the situation for the teams, the media and the fans. Create a new empowered negotiation position for future players.
It’d make for a hell of a story. But then, maybe I’m just being the self-serving one.