During his half-hour media availability at the NFL ownership meetings in Phoenix on Monday, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made an interesting statement.
“We’re not afraid to do whatever we need to do that will help the team,” he said. “Whatever that is.”
Could that “whatever” be making a massive investment into a player who surprisingly has become available? Possibly, especially given that said player may or may not have expressed his desire to join Belichick and company in New England.
The player in question, of course, is Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Jackson is one of the league’s best players, but his contract negotiations with the Ravens have not yielded any results so far — leading to him requesting a trade, and the organization answering by applying the franchise tag. Things do not appear to be well between the two parties, giving the Patriots an opportunity to swoop in and pick the QB up.
At the league meetings, Jackson’s status was front and center. And while Belichick would unsurprisingly not comment on him or his status, team owner Robert Kraft did touch the topic: he told reporters after a Q&A session that he had received a text from rapper Meek Mill that Jackson would apparently want to join the Patriots.
Whether that is true or not, Jackson is an intriguing prospect. Is he also one worth pursuing, though? Let’s try to find out.
Why the Patriots should pursue Lamar Jackson
This one is pretty simple: Lamar Jackson is really good at this football thing. A first-round draft pick in 2018, he was named league MVP in just his second season and has been one of the league’s premier playmakers ever since.
The numbers speak for themselves. In a combined 74 regular season and playoff games over his five NFL seasons, Jackson has completed 63.1 percent of his pass attempts for 13,109 yards, 104 touchdowns and 43 interceptions; he also has gained 6.2 yards on his 781 rushing attempts and scored 25 times.
With Jackson in the lineup, the Ravens have gone 45-16 in the regular season as well as 1-3 in the playoffs. Baltimore has had only one losing season since his arrival, back in 2021 when Jackson missed five games; the team still went 7-5 when he was available.
Statistics tell only one part of the story when it comes to Jackson, though.
The film adds more context — and it shows a quarterback who has some serious top-five potential. Jackson, after all, is more than “just” the running quarterback he oftentimes is portrayed as: he is a true dual-threat, capable of putting stress on opposing defenses with both his right arm and his legs.
He combines natural arm talent with strong discipline and anticipation, and is accurate delivering the football at all levels of the field.
Lamar Jackson winning with eye discipline, touch, and ball placement pic.twitter.com/CqTLhUmMR0— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 28, 2023
Lamar Jackson the passer has had some impressive moments since arriving in the league, but one has to wonder whether or not he has reached his ceiling. The Ravens offense, after all, has been run-centric under offensive coordinator Greg Roman in the quarterback’s four seasons as the undisputed starter.
Roman is as good as anybody at drawing up the run, but his passing concepts left a lot to be desired. Add the fact that the receiver positions were a revolving door outside of tight end Mark Andrews, and it is not hard to see why a) Lamar Jackson might not have reached his peak yet, and b) he is being billed as more of a runner than a passer.
Make no mistake, though, Jackson can run very well. Just ask Bill Belichick.
“He’s very fast, and he’s definitely a hard guy to handle,” Belichick said ahead of his team’s first encounter with Jackson in 2019. “That’s definitely a problem. He’s fast, and that’s really a big problem. A lot of times, he just outruns people.
“He’s got good moves, too — I’m not saying that. But a lot of times, he just outruns people with his speed. Catching him is an issue, especially when he keeps the ball. A lot of times he’s running against a defensive end, and the ends just aren’t fast enough. They have him, but they don’t have him. He’s a problem. He’s definitely a problem.”
Just last season, the Patriots had to see Jackson gain 110 rushing yards and score a touchdown on just eight non-kneel-down runs. They had no answers for him in a 37-26 loss.
Jackson’s production on the ground has partially been the result of Roman’s run-centric scheme and play-calling, but he has also shown that he can succeed outside of structure. That is true both from a passing and a running perspective; Jackson is similar to Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen in that regard: he just has that natural feel for finding open space without panicking.
Folks tend to see athletic QBs and assume they're impatient in the pocket or thrive on improvisation. I assure you, the out-of-structure playmaking is a bonus with Lamar— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) March 28, 2023
That said, it's a really really big bonus pic.twitter.com/HSiAoWqZL6
The Patriots adding a player of that caliber to the mix would instantly give them a significant boost in the arms race the AFC East has begun. Incumbent quarterback Mac Jones may or may not be able to do that as well in 2023, but the jury is still out on him.
Jackson, on the other hand, has shown what he can be: an MVP-level player who has a transformative effect on an offense — both through his elite playmaking abilities, and his potential as a pull factor for free agents or trade candidates.
Why the Patriots should not pursue Lamar Jackson
First things first, the scheme is not why New England might want to steer clear from Jackson. While, yes, the Patriots are running a different offense compared to what Jackson was working with in Baltimore, there is little doubt coordinator Bill O’Brien would be able to adapt to get the most out of him.
The concerns when it comes to pursuing Jackson have more to do with economics: he will not be cheap, in more ways than one.
For starters, the Ravens hold Jackson’s rights at the moment. He made a trade request public and it at least seems possible he has put on a Baltimore uniform for the last time, but the organization still has control over him applying the franchise tag earlier this month; even if he does not sign what is effectively a one-year contract, the team currently holds the cards.
Of course, the Ravens did invite other teams to pursue Jackson. By applying the non-exclusive tag, other clubs can talk to him and sign him to an offer sheet; Baltimore would have five days to match in that scenario or receive two first-round draft picks as compensation should it not.
So, it would cost two first-rounders to bring Jackson in? Not necessarily. The Patriots and Ravens could also work out a trade that would include different compensation; Jackson would then sign the tag and move to the Patriots for whatever is agreed upon — similar to how the Las Vegas Raiders and Green Bay Packers manufactured the Davante Adams trade last offseason.
That being said, the price will still be steep: Jackson, as noted above, is an elite talent and as such the Ravens will not let him leave for cheap. A first-round pick will be the minimum that has to be exchanged, with the total value approaching those two Day 1 selections required by the franchise tag.
The Patriots being willing to part with draft capital is just one part of the equation, though. Jackson would also need a new deal, and it will not be cheap.
The 26-year-old is rumored to be looking for a fully-guaranteed deal that will rival the one Deshaun Watson signed in Cleveland last year — a five-year pact worth $230 million. The Patriots as a team are valued at over $6.4 billion, with owner Robert Kraft worth $10.6 billion. But while the team’s resources are virtually limitless, the NFL salary cap very much is not.
At the moment, the Patriots are just $12.9 million under the cap, according to Miguel Benzan. They might be able to fit Jackson in via the use of a comparatively small salary in combination with his signing bonus, but there is only so low they can go. The signing bonus proration alone would likely force New England to make moves to free up cap space; using Watson as a benchmark, it would be roughly $18 million per year.
Obviously, timing and mode of acquisition are important here. Say Jackson is acquired via trade after having signed his franchise tag tender but not immediately signed to a new deal; his cap hit would be the franchise tag number of $32.4 million. An offer sheet to pry him away that way would likely come in even higher than that to prevent Baltimore from matching.
What would help the Patriots is the fact that the salary cap is somewhat flexible. The team could opt to do a salary-to-signing-bonus conversion with some of its players to limit their 2023 cap hit; Matthew Judon or David Andrews are prime candidates. However, these can get you only so far while pushing money into the future — a future that will see the cap grow, but likely also Jackson’s impact on it.
The easiest way to find the cap space necessary to acquire Jackson would be to make some cuts: Hunter Henry, Trent Brown, Devante Parker, Kendrick Bourne or Deatrich Wise Jr. might all be on the chopping block in that case. Jackson is good enough to compensate for some talent being removed as part of his acquisition, but one has to wonder whether a team like the Patriots — whose roster-building philosophy puts a premium on depth rather than relying too much on individual players — would be willing to thin the herd like that.
The economics are not the only uncertainty. There are also questions about Jackson himself, most prominently about his durability.
While an elite player when healthy, he has not always been that. He has not played a full season since taking over as Baltimore’s starter in 2019, and injuries have started to mount the last two seasons in particular; Jackson missed a total of six games in 2021 (illness, ankle), and five more in 2022 (knee).
Giving him a massive fully-guaranteed contract would be a risk, especially if you financially commit to having him on your roster into his 30s. The Patriots have never shied away from taking risks, but their MO under Bill Belichick has been looking for value: Would Jackson, for as good as he can be, be that if he commands 20 percent of cap space?
And then there’s another factor to consider, as well: Mac Jones.
As noted above, the jury is still out on him but there is optimism he will bounce back in 2023 under an improved coaching setup led by recently-hired coordinator Bill O’Brien. Jones has his limitations, but he has shown that he can be an effective NFL quarterback — and certainly effective enough to lead New England for the foreseeable future.
The Patriots appear to be committed to him, even with Belichick not publicly guaranteeing he will be the starter next year. All of that could very well change in case things go south this upcoming season, but as of March 2023 he looks like New England’s QB1 and a player the team is willing to build around.
What will the Patriots do?
That is the multi-million dollar question, and one that will not be answered until further down the line.
Fact is, Lamar Jackson is an elite talent at the quarterback position and a player capable of elevating the Patriots or most other teams he could realistically join. Adding him to the equation would give New England’s offense a ceiling it might never reach with Mac Jones under center.
That all said, the questions surrounding him are manifold: from his contractual demands, to the investment needed to bring him in in the first place, to the team’s current setup with Jones in the middle. If the Patriots do feel confident answering those questions, they might pursue Jackson; they surely would be able to find a way to fit him onto the team and play productive football even with some tough cuts having to be made.
However, it all goes back to the question of value. And Bill Belichick and company would likely place only so much on a single player: Jackson being worth multiple high draft picks, plus a massive financial commitment, plus several player releases, seems like a stretch based on how New England has operated through the years.
Unless Belichick wants to push all his poker chips into the middle of the table to either go big or go broke with Jackson — something that would go against his track record — the Patriots bringing him in seems like a long-shot.