BALTIMORE -- Like the Kansas City Chiefs officials who signed off Monday on the richest-ever contract in American professional sports, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has the utmost respect for Patrick Mahomes.
Before their first NFL meeting, in 2018, Jackson recalled seeing him throw at an offseason camp during Mahomes' rookie year and wondering how he was a backup. In September, Jackson said Mahomes, then the NFL's reigning Most Valuable Player, was "on his way" to being considered the greatest of all time. In February, Mahomes won his first Super Bowl, the holy grail by which Jackson measures all quarterbacks. Last month, Jackson said he wished he had Mahomes' "cannon arm."
But for all the praise Jackson has lavished on Mahomes, he remains uninterested in the sport's wider conversation. There is no appetite for a me-versus-him debate. Ahead of the Ravens' September matchup in Kansas City last season, he downplayed the head-to-head matchup. "It's Ravens versus Chiefs," he said. "I don't really look at it like I'm competing against him." Asked last month about the constant comparisons to Mahomes, whom he'd followed not only as MVP but also the "Madden" cover athlete, he called the topic "annoying."
"We play football," he told Bleacher Report. "Two different teams. Ain't got nothing to do with each other."
Jackson chuckled. He knew better than to expect the conversation to end. And with Mahomes' historic 10-year contract extension signed a year before Jackson is eligible for his own, the narrative around the Ravens' most important deal in years -- maybe ever -- now has a framing: If Mahomes got a reported $450 million, and up to $503 million overall, how much could Jackson get?
The easy answer is, a lot. Over the past decade, about the only thing that's grown faster than Netflix's library is quarterback salary. In 2013, reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract extension with the Ravens that made him the NFL's highest-paid player. Before Mahomes' deal, 15 quarterbacks -- nearly half of all NFL starters -- had 2020 salary cap hits higher than Flacco's $20.1 million annual value.
Few have Jackson's resume, especially at so young an age. Second-youngest MVP in league history. Second-ever unanimous MVP. First in QBR and third in passer rating in only his age-22 season. Single-season rushing record for a quarterback. Nineteen wins in 22 career starts. A reputation as a beloved teammate and dedicated worker.
Even if injuries and team-building strategies ultimately limit Jackson's effectiveness as a runner, Ravens coaches and teammates now share the conviction he entered the league with three years ago: that he can be a franchise cornerstone. That he can win like Tom Brady with a playing style that evokes Michael Vick's.
For now, Jackson will be paid like a player on his first contract. After cap hits of $1.7 million and $2.2 million over his first two years, respectively, Jackson will earn $2.6 million this season -- only about $100,000 more than backup Robert Griffin III. Seventeen Ravens teammates have higher cap hits. Thirty-seven other quarterbacks, too.
The Ravens' roster, considered by many to be the NFL's strongest, is a product of savvy drafting, shrewd front-office dealings, impressive player development and, maybe most important, simple economics. It helps to pay your quarterback about as much as you pay your punter. As the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson, Philadelphia Eagles' Carson Wentz and Mahomes proved over the past decade, nothing helps a Super Bowl contender balance its books quite like a Pro Bowl-level quarterback on a rookie deal.
Eventually, though, a contract runs its course and a player gets paid. Jackson is owed $3 million in 2021. His fifth-year option, if and when the Ravens exercise it next offseason, would be worth at least the 2021 valuation of the transition tag for quarterbacks. At this year's rates, such an option would have guaranteed Jackson $26.8 million upon signing.
Unless Jackson helps deliver a postseason run in Baltimore, his own megadeal likely won't approach Mahomes'. Other potential extensions might prove more instructive. Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott, both two-time Pro Bowl selections and dual-threat quarterbacks, are reportedly seeking shorter-term deals with the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. With the NFL soon adding a 17th game and the league's TV rights up for renewal over the next two years, the salary cap is expected to skyrocket. Quarterbacks will strike it rich again.
Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta is no doubt aware. Coach John Harbaugh last month compared the salary cap to playing golf, and the team has plenty of time to get this shot just right. There are hazards aplenty until the 2021 offseason, from the season itself to the coronavirus pandemic's financial ramifications to the escalating cost of homegrown talent.
After breaking the bank Monday, Kansas City made DeCosta's job at once a little easier and a little harder. Thanks to Mahomes' deal, the Ravens know what it cost one team to re-sign a superstar quarterback. And it ain't cheap.
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