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The Lamar Jackson FAQ: Making Sense of the Nonexclusive Franchise Tag

The Ravens didn’t place the standard exclusive franchise tag on Lamar Jackson. What is the nonexclusive tag, and what will happen next in the standoff between Baltimore and the former MVP? 

AP Images/Ringer illustration

At first glance, the NFL franchise tag deadline passed without many surprises. The Giants wanted to extend Daniel Jones to tag Saquon Barkley, and that’s what happened. The Ravens wanted to reach an extension with Lamar Jackson, and if they couldn’t reach it, they were going to tag him. And that’s what happened.

Only, it’s not that simple.

The Ravens didn’t place the exclusive franchise tag on Lamar Jackson—they placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on him.

So, what does the nonexclusive tag do, and why was it necessary for the Ravens and Lamar here? Let’s go through a hypothetical Q&A.

What did the Ravens just do?

The Ravens placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on Lamar Jackson. It’s easier to understand the nonexclusive tag by going through the exclusive tag first.

The exclusive franchise tag secures the player to a one-year deal at a nonnegotiable price. It prevents the player from entering free agency that season; when their one-year franchise tag deal expires, they are eligible for free agency again, and the whole process begins anew. The Washington Commanders placed the exclusive tag on Kirk Cousins back in 2017 after he had already been on the nonexclusive tag in 2016.

Unlike the exclusive franchise tag, the nonexclusive franchise tag does not prevent the player from soliciting competing deals in free agency from other teams—at least not totally. Lamar is able to meet with other teams on March 13, two days before free agency begins, and if he receives an offer he likes in free agency from another team, he can sign that offer sheet. At that time, the Ravens would be given a five-day period to match that offer sheet and keep Lamar on their team. If they don’t match the offer, Lamar would sign with his new team, and the new team would send two first-round picks to the Ravens as compensation.

Because the nonexclusive tag gives the player some freedom, it costs the team less than the exclusive tag. The exclusive tag for a quarterback this season was around $45 million for one year; the nonexclusive tag is only $32.4 million. For perspective: A cap hit of $45 million would make Lamar the fourth-highest paid quarterback (by total cap hit) in 2023. The nonexclusive tag figure of $32.4 million, on the other hand, is ninth. Most franchise tags used in the league are nonexclusive tags because, usually, no other team wants to spend those two extra first-round picks to sign a free agent. But in the case of a top quarterback—like Lamar—using the nonexclusive tag is a little riskier.

OK, that was extremely confusing. Aren’t you supposed to be explaining this?

Yeah, it’s hard. Let’s break it down with an example.

Now that Lamar has received the nonexclusive tag, he can start negotiating with other teams on March 13. A bunch of teams make sense as Lamar landing spots—the Texans, the Titans, the Panthers, the Colts, or the Lions. We’ll talk about them all in a bit.

Let’s say Lamar gets offers from the Panthers, Texans, and Titans. Just like any other free agent, Lamar would have to choose which of the three offers to sign. Let’s pretend the Texans offer is the best—it’s $250 million over five years, with $150 million guaranteed. So, Lamar signs that offer sheet with the Texans.

Lamar notifies the Ravens that he’s signed with the Texans. Now, the Ravens have five days to sign Lamar to the same contract that the Texans signed him to—a $250 million deal over five years, with $150 million guaranteed. If the Ravens decide to match the Texans deal, Lamar remains a Raven (and is paid $250 million over five years, with $150 million guaranteed), and the Texans have to go elsewhere to find their quarterback.

Wait, wait, wait. Why don’t the Texans just offer Lamar an insane contract? One that the Ravens literally cannot match?

Great question, me.

Teams looking to sign Lamar are prohibited from placing “poison pills” in the contract—essentially, terms that the Ravens would be inherently unable to match. The Collective Bargaining Agreement defines poison pills like this:

Article 9, Section 3.e.iii

Notwithstanding Subsections (i) and (ii) above, no Offer Sheet may contain a Principal Term that would create rights or obligations for the Old Club that differ in any way (including but not limited to the amount of compensation that would be paid, the circumstances in which compensation would be guaranteed, or the circumstances in which other contractual rights would or would not vest) from the rights or obligations that such Principal Term would create for the Club extending the Offer Sheet (i.e., no “poison pills”).

Put into plain English: The team offering Lamar a contract can’t include a clause that says, “Lamar will be given a $100 million signing bonus, unless the team he plays for has purple as their primary color, has a bird as their mascot, and plays in the state of Maryland, in which case, he will be given a $200 million signing bonus.”

This is a silly example, of course, but it’s an important stipulation. When Seahawks guard Steve Hutchinson was signed to the transition tag instead of the franchise tag in 2006, the Vikings offered him a contract that stipulated his entire deal would become guaranteed if there was another lineman on his team making more money than him. In Minnesota, there was no such lineman making more money than Hutchinson, but in Seattle, which had to match the offer sheet word for word, there was. The offer from Minnesota had a poison pill—a fundamental difference in Hutchinson’s contract if he was a Viking instead of a Seahawk—and no such foolishness can happen with sheets offered to Lamar.

Can the team giving Lamar an offer still sign him to a deal that the Ravens can’t match because of their cap situation?

Now we’re cooking with gas.

The Ravens don’t have a bad cap situation at all. With the $32.4 million of Lamar’s nonexclusive franchise tag on their books, Spotrac currently projects the Ravens at negative-$8.3 million in cap space for the 2023 season, but the careful accounting and contract reshuffling necessary to get into the black are not difficult. The Ravens have enough space to take on Lamar’s $32.4 million cap hit. They’ll be fine.

But other teams have much more room to work with in 2023. The Bears and Falcons, two teams that are likely out of the Lamar sweepstakes (the Bears because of their commitment to Justin Fields and the Falcons because of today’s explicit reporting that they are out of the Lamar sweepstakes), have the most projected cap space in the league. The Texans, Raiders, Patriots, Titans, and Lions are all among the top 10 teams in projected 2023 space—and all of them could reasonably pursue Lamar.

Those teams are allowed to structure Lamar’s deal however they like, and they can try to create a structure that makes it difficult for the Ravens to match the contract. Let’s say the Texans deal for Lamar has a huge roster bonus in 2023, a massive sum of guaranteed money that skyrockets his Year 1 cap hit all the way to $55 million, the highest single-season cap hit among all quarterbacks. If the Ravens were to match the Texans offer, they’d have to be able to absorb that cap hit. That’s a lot trickier for the Ravens than it is for the Texans, who currently have $42 million in 2023 cap space to play with.

But that’s much easier said than done. The Texans don’t want to blow all of their 2023 cap space on securing Lamar—they have a ton of roster holes to fill, and the second overall pick might turn out to be a really good quarterback.

Lamar may also have no interest in playing that game. Lamar is evidently looking for a fully guaranteed deal—one that is analogous to the deal signed by Deshaun Watson in Cleveland: five years, $230 million, fully guaranteed. How committed Lamar is to that goal relative to his frustration with Baltimore and his motivation to get away from that franchise is something I can only speculate on. There are a lot of moving parts here.

Is that why the Ravens are using this nonexclusive tag? Because Lamar wants a fully guaranteed deal?

Pretty much. The nonexclusive tag, in that it allows the player to negotiate for contracts with other teams, is essentially an open-faced challenge. “We don’t want to give you this deal, and you know what? We don’t think anyone wants to give you this deal either.” If Lamar wasn’t holding the line on a fully guaranteed deal, the Ravens would have signed him to an extension. And if the Ravens believed other teams were going to sign Lamar to the fully guaranteed deal he’s asking for, they would have used the exclusive franchise tag to prevent him from negotiating with other teams.

It’s worth noting that owners absolutely do not want fully guaranteed deals to become the standard operating procedure in the NFL—even for top quarterbacks. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at league meetings last year, “Damn, I wish [the Browns] hadn’t guaranteed the whole [Deshaun Watson] contract. I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”

No owner wants to sign Lamar to a fully guaranteed deal. In doing so, they’d demonstrate to other top quarterbacks that if they demand a fully guaranteed deal, they’ll get it—and that takes more money away from owners, for whom fully guaranteed deals are more expensive. In the shadowy circle of NFL owners, the dude who signs Lamar to a fully guaranteed deal will be ruining the party for everyone.

This isn’t just a battle for the Ravens and Lamar—it’s a battle for the entire league over the future of contract structures. No big deal.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks. Who is actually going to try and sign Lamar away from the Ravens?

Now this is the exciting stuff. Get your jersey swaps ready.

Here are the teams I can see negotiating with Lamar once the league year begins, organized by groups in descending order of feasibility.

They’re Definitely Talking About It

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts have had their eyes set on drafting a rookie quarterback, and I don’t think Lamar will fully sway them off of that path. But the Colts are desperate for quality QB play on a team that otherwise seems ready to compete in the AFC. One thing to consider here: The Colts would have to send the 2023 fourth overall pick to the Ravens as one of the two first-round picks that must be sent in return for signing a player on the nonexclusive tag (assuming that Jackson is moved before the 2023 NFL draft). That’s a pricey pick.

Houston Texans: The Texans would have to send the second overall pick to the Ravens (if Lamar signs his offer sheet before the 2023 NFL draft) as part of the deal for signing Lamar away, which I think might be too much to swallow. For a rebuilding team like Houston, draft picks and cap space are crucial. They will certainly do their due diligence, and if they aren’t in love with any of the top draft quarterbacks, I wouldn’t rule Lamar out.

New York Jets: The Jets’ private jet landed in Los Angeles this afternoon to talk things out with Aaron Rodgers. The enigmatic quarterback is currently under contract with the Packers, but Green Bay has given the Jets permission to talk with him, and if all goes well, they may hammer out a trade.

But if things don’t go well? The Jets’ best remaining option at quarterback becomes Lamar, the star player they need to elevate a young, talented offense that’s ready to take the leap. If the Rodgers domino falls the right way, this fit makes a ton of sense.

I Think It’d Be Sick So I’m Rooting for It, but Who Knows What They’re Doing

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are an odd case. They don’t have their 2023 first-round pick (it belongs to the Saints by way of the Broncos by way of the Dolphins, which is a whole ’nother thing we’re not going to get into now), so they can’t acquire Lamar from the Ravens via the obvious route: signing him to a contract and sending two first-round picks back to the Ravens. They would need to wait until after the 2023 draft, at which point the Niners would send their 2024 and 2025 first-round selections.

They can also trade for Lamar in the same way that any old team trades for a player: They make an offer to the Ravens, and the Ravens accept. In this hypothetical, Jackson signs the nonexclusive franchise tender with the Ravens and is immediately traded to the 49ers, with whom he signs a massive extension. (He could also sign with the Ravens first and then get traded to the Niners, but this is all semantics.)

Of course, the Niners would have to offer something to the Ravens that’s better than two first-round picks—say, a few picks and Trey Lance?

There are workarounds here to get Lamar to the Niners, and if the Niners look to pursue those workarounds, Lamar makes a ton of sense. He brings the mobility that Kyle Shanahan wants at the position, is an elite thrower to the middle of the field, and is far safer for the team than Lance or Purdy off an elbow injury.

Detroit Lions: Think about how much you love your kids or your dog or your collection of antique clocks. That’s about how much Lions GM Brad Holmes loves QB Jared Goff, whom he helped draft as the director of college scouting in Los Angeles and then traded for when he became the general manager of the Lions. The Lions have to improve on Goff at some point, and with the sixth overall pick in the draft, they’re in QB territory—so it only makes sense that they’d look into trading for Jackson as well. But Goff just came off a career year, and Holmes has given him his public support.

If the Lions are looking to move on from Goff this year, they immediately become one of the most sensible Lamar teams. If not, they won’t even pick up the phone.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans are in fire-sale mode, as new GM Ran Carthon looks to retool a roster stuck in the second tier of the AFC. They’ve moved on from Taylor Lewan, Robert Woods, and Bud Dupree, and star RB Derrick Henry is reportedly on the trade block.

But Carthon strongly endorsed Ryan Tannehill as his QB for 2023 during the NFL combine. Was it real, or was it just smoke and mirrors? Tannehill has only one year left on his deal and is due $36.6 million in his age-35 season—they have to start thinking about the future soon, and given the way Malik Willis played last season, I’m not sure he’s it.

New England Patriots: Who knows what the Patriots are going to do under Bill Belichick? Not I! Given what I’ve seen from Mac Jones over the first two years of his career, I’d be willing to grab Lamar and trade Jones away to return some of the capital I lost—but I’m not sure the Patriots brass will feel that way. But remember—Cam Newton was starting for this team recently. Belichick with a mobile quarterback isn’t an unthinkable idea.

They’d Like to, but Don’t Have the Money

Las Vegas Raiders: The Raiders moved on from Derek Carr because good wasn’t good enough—they need their quarterback to be great. Lamar is a great quarterback! So this would make perfect sense!

But the Raiders are one of the most cash-poor franchises in the league, and any team looking to sign Jackson to a fully guaranteed deal needs to have a ton of cash on hand to place in escrow for that contract. I don’t think the Raiders will be in a financial position to sign a deal like the one Lamar wants.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers currently have negative–$47.9 million in projected 2023 cap space. Tom Brady’s dead cap hit currently accounts for $35.1 million on the 2023 books. Need I say more?

Green Bay Packers: If the Packers trade Rodgers, they’ll have the unproven Jordan Love as their starting quarterback. I’d imagine they’re fine with that—they drafted him in the first round, after all. But even if they wanted to bring in an alternative option to Love, they’d have to work around a $40 million dead cap hit left behind by a Rodgers trade. That, plus the contract it’d take to lure Lamar, is likely too much.

There Are Already Reports Saying These Teams Are Out

Carolina Panthers: The only quarterbacks currently under contract for the Panthers are Matt Corral and Jacob Eason, so the Panthers’ QB situation is pretty dire. While Frank Reich presumably would prefer to develop a young quarterback after enduring a carousel of veteran retreads in Indianapolis, Jackson’s talent is enticing. There are already reports, however, that the Panthers are not expected to be in the market for Lamar.

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons made perfect sense. They have a ton of 2023 cap space, 2022 third-round Desmond Ridder is the projected starter, and head coach Arthur Smith has experience working with mobile quarterbacks. But any Lamar-to-Atlanta hype was immediately struck down by reporting this afternoon—they are not expected to pursue Jackson.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins were never gonna move on from Tua, but just in case you weren’t sure:

OK … what will actually happen?

No idea.

We haven’t seen a lot of nonexclusive franchise tags. Only three have been issued to quarterbacks since 2000: Drew Brees with the Chargers in 2005, Matt Cassel with the Patriots in 2009, and Kirk Cousins with Washington in 2016. Cousins stayed with Washington for the next two seasons before leaving in free agency for the Vikings; Brees stayed with the Chargers and left in free agency the next season. Cassel, while tagged, was traded to the Chiefs and played the 2009 season there.

So we haven’t seen a quarterback actually get signed to an offer sheet on the nonexclusive tag this century—and that’s what the Ravens are banking on here. It seems like a good bet. Yesterday, I was confident that Lamar would have a large market in this quasi-free agency, but with the Falcons and the Panthers already out, it looks like interest in signing Lamar to a massive guaranteed deal—and sending two first-round picks away in the process—is waning.

If Lamar discovers the appetite for a fully guaranteed deal is not present anywhere in the NFL, he may return to the negotiating table with the Ravens and hammer out a long-term contract that meets the Ravens on their terms. Because Jackson is a tagged player, he will be eligible to sign an extension with the Ravens up until a July 17 deadline. The longer this goes on, the more leverage the Ravens gain.

But if I had to guess, I’d say that Lamar will find enough interest from one of the many teams listed above that he’ll get some sort of offer or trade to get out of Baltimore. This guy was a consensus MVP less than five years ago. There are so many teams with second- or third-tier quarterbacks; one of them should take a swing at a top-tier player like Lamar. For my money, the Niners, Lions, and Jets are the leaders in the clubhouse.