Before the N.F.L. season began, there was an unusual groundswell in support of Lamar Jackson receiving a lucrative new contract, and not just from his Ravens teammates or fans who’ve watched him make magic.
The loudest support came from a chorus of players from other teams, former pros, and sometimes, athletes from other sports. Buffalo Bills linebacker Von Miller told reporters that Jackson should be the highest-paid player in the league; the former Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman criticized the Ravens’ front office for not getting a deal done; and the N.B.A. stars James Harden and Ja Morant showed their support, with Morant posting on Twitter that the Ravens needed to pay Lamar, “RIGHT NOWWW.”
Even opponents campaigned for Jackson, a 26-year-old quarterback. After Jackson had two costly turnovers in a Week 6 loss to the Giants, reporters asked New York linebacker Jihad Ward if Jackson’s interception was “dumb,” and the defender’s demeanor quickly shifted from jubilant to serious.
“Lamar is a great player,” Ward said. “All I can say is I don’t think it was dumb. All I can say is that’s my dawg, and pay that man. Pay Lamar Jackson, please.” Other Giants players joined in the chorus, yelling that the Ravens should pay Jackson.
In Week 8, after Jackson torched the Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla., for 238 yards and two touchdowns in the air and rushed for 43 yards, he spotted a fan’s sign that read “Pay ‘Em Now,” held it aloft and then autographed it.
The praise for Jackson has been abnormal, especially across a league in which players tend to shy away from speaking about other people’s contract negotiations, and fans care more about the numbers on scoreboards than legal documents. But some of Jackson’s N.F.L. supporters said their defense of him stems from criticisms they’ve heard, ranging from football commentators derisively describing him as a running back to a former general manager saying Jackson needed to switch positions to receiver.
Many of Jackson’s peers dismissed such talk as unfair tropes often used to deride Black quarterbacks who also possess elite speed, criticisms that also trailed predecessors like Michael Vick. The frustrations have only amplified since Jackson, who represents himself without an agent, and the Ravens failed to reach a contract extension in the off-season while other marquee quarterbacks signed lucrative deals.
Contract negotiations with the Ravens fell apart before the 2022 regular season began, with Jackson and team executives reportedly failing to agree on the portion of his contract that would be guaranteed. In the off-season, the Cleveland Browns signed Deshaun Watson to a five-year contract with $230 million guaranteed, the largest sum in N.F.L. history. Watson was facing nearly two dozen sexual assault or harassment allegations and had not played in 2021.
Comparatively, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year $450 million contract in 2020 after he had won a Super Bowl that February and the league Most Valuable Player Award the previous season, but only $141 million of that contract was guaranteed. Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson signed a five-year extension in 2022 with a reported $165 million in guaranteed money.
Jackson made $23 million this season on the last year of his rookie contract after turning down an offer ESPN reported as being worth $250 million, but with less in guaranteed money than Russell and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray had negotiated.
The 2019 M.V.P., Jackson took a significant gamble by playing the 2022 season without a long-term contract agreement because a major injury could have greatly diminished what the Ravens would have offered him after the season.
That risk became a reality in Week 13 when Jackson strained the posterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees, which caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Jackson, who has a 1-3 career record in the postseason, missed the Ravens playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
His absence sparked skepticism from TV analysts, who questioned why Jackson didn’t feel compelled to play through injury, and commentary from at least one teammate, the veteran receiver Sammy Watkins, who wondered publicly if Jackson was putting his contract negotiations over the good of the team.
“He’s had a lot of success early. He won an M.V.P. in his second year. And so you know, with that thought, it’s like, ‘I want top dollar,’” Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, said about Jackson. “And then you look around, and you see what’s going on around you, who getting paid around you, and that becomes a thing in your mind for all the right reasons. You should feel that way, ‘I got more accolades than him, so I should be getting paid more.’”
Jackson has been compared to Vick since he was in college at Louisville because of their elite speed and agility at the quarterback position. And since Jackson has been in the N.F.L., he has proved those comparisons to be sound, breaking Vick’s records for rushing yards in a season, with 1,206 in 2019, and 100-yard rushing games, with 12 through the 2022 season. Vick remembers facing many of the same criticisms of his run-heavy style that Jackson does now and getting similar player support around the league before he signed a contract with the Eagles in 2011 that was reportedly worth $100 million.
Though Vick, who was then was two years removed from spending 18 months in jail for funding a dog fighting operation, noted that his support from peers around the league and some fans was much different.
“It had nothing to do with money,” he said. “I wasn’t the top quarterback at the time like Lamar, so I couldn’t come and demand I got paid Peyton Manning numbers just because I won comeback player of the year.”
Vick also acknowledged that he “stayed hurt” because of his playing style and only played a full 16-game regular season once in his career, elements that can make N.F.L. front offices uneasy about committing long-term contracts to dual-threat quarterbacks.
And Jackson has an injury history of his own, though many of those ailments came when he was dropping back for passes, not running. Last season, he sprained an ankle after completing a throw when a Browns linebacker dove at his foot. That injury caused Jackson to miss the Ravens’ final four games of the season, all losses. Jackson’s knee injury this season happened against the Broncos when he was sacked from behind while looking to pass.
The Ravens lost four of their last six games without Jackson, including a 24-17 defeat to the Bengals in the wild-card round.
“Lamar Jackson is our quarterback,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said at an end-of-season news conference. “Everything we’ve done in terms of building our offense and building our team, how we think in terms of putting people around him is based on this incredible young man and his talent and his ability.”
Jackson’s rookie deal is set to expire on March 15, when he would be an unrestricted free agent, and his next long-term contract is expected to help define the top of market for the next wave of quarterback contract extensions, along with those of Jalen Hurts and Joe Burrow, who have each led their teams to Super Bowl berths.
But the Ravens can designate him as a franchise player at any time between Feb. 21 and Mar. 7, the last date for the two sides to reach a long-term agreement, a likely outcome where Jackson would play for one season under predefined compensation.
Placing Jackson under a nonexclusive franchise tag would allow the Ravens to offer him payment of roughly $32 million for next season while Jackson negotiates with other teams for a better deal. The Ravens would have five days to match any offer and if the team does not, it would receive two first-round draft picks from Jackson’s new team.
Or the Ravens could sign Jackson to the exclusive franchise tag, which gives the team sole negotiating rights while Jackson is paid about $45 million for the 2023 season. Jackson could decide not to sign the franchise tag and sit out of training camp or games during the season until a long-term deal is completed.
His N.F.L. peers are sure to be watching for which route negotiations take.