Lamar Jackson’s daring game: an agentless contract

By no argument, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has had an outstanding career in his first three seasons in the NFL.

Drafted at the end of the first round in 2018, he quickly established himself as one of the league’s most dynamic players, winning six of his first seven regular season starts in his freshman year and the player’s award. more useful during its second. At 24, he’s a face of the league and the undisputed centerpiece of the Ravens’ future.

These are among the facts that will no doubt be discussed as executives Jackson and Baltimore negotiate an extension of his rookie contract, the massive salary that is typically the biggest pay rise in a player’s career. NFL and who will determine the market for other nearby franchise quarterbacks. the end of their entry-level contracts.

His peers have already set the table. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott signed a four-year, $ 160 million contract extension in March (with a total guaranteed amount of $ 126 million). In August, Bills quarterback Josh Allen was awarded a six-year, $ 258 million contract (with $ 150 million in total guaranteed money).

But as Jackson negotiates with his team over the size and terms of a new deal, he stands out for dealing with the problem on his own, one of 17 NFL players not represented by a traditional sports agent. . Instead, Jackson brought in advisers, including his mother, Felicia Jones, to work out the clauses, exceptions and compromises.

They offered little information about the process. He could go with the trend and ask for a four-year deal to increase his flexibility, or he could try to get a longer, bigger contract like Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Allen did.

Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

Proceeding without traditional representation, Jackson challenges football’s orthodoxy, in part promoted by agents, that players cannot understand complex contracts or negotiate one successfully. At the same time, the leaders of the Ravens team – who declined to speak for this article – cannot limit their relationship to talking only to Jackson about his work. They should also tell him what they think his job is worth.

“The agents have told the world that the players can’t do anything without them,” said Russell Okung, who began representing himself midway through his 12-year NFL career as an offensive lineman. . “When Lamar goes out alone, it’s scary for the agent world. If he finds out, others will too.

The challenges extend beyond dollar signs. “He’s also a black quarterback and people are used to working a certain way,” Okung added. “He fights against a myriad of narratives at once.”

For years, players have complained that agents weren’t doing enough to earn their fees, which can be as high as 3% of a contract’s value. Saving hundreds of thousands of dollars is a big part of what has motivated Richard Sherman, Okung, DeAndre Hopkins and others in recent years to negotiate their own deals, some of whom have been exhausted in the media.

While these players left their agents mid-career, Jackson left without an agent from the start.

In the league’s particular economic context, this is understandable as rookie pay scales are strictly prescribed, leaving little room for negotiation. Teams operate under rigid salary caps and often choose the fifth-year option in star player contracts to keep them at a cheaper figure for an additional year before they become free agents, or in the case of star players. Ravens with Jackson, to allow more time to negotiate an extension.

Teams can also impose a “franchise tag” on players – a designation of one year of the average salary of the top five players in the same position (over the past five seasons) or 120 percent of the player’s previous salary – for refrain from paying what the market will bear. To hang on to their star quarterbacks, whose salaries are rising much faster than those of players in other positions, teams can also fill the rest of their rosters with rookies and free agents ready to play for minimum wage. .

Jackson’s decision to forgo traditional portrayal calls for more scrutiny than negotiations from other stars, as he awaits a massive contract extension that will help define the future market for franchise quarterbacks. Deciphering NFL contracts is complicated because teams can include a multitude of clauses which, when triggered, can cost the player dearly. Injury off the field can allow a team to withhold payment. The same goes for an arrest, suspension or unjustified absence from the club.

A player’s annual salary can be relatively low compared to signing bonuses, payments for team composition, payments for attending voluntary training camps, and meeting performance goals. like running a statistical category.

Top quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have, in recent negotiations, prevented their teams from awarding them franchise labels. The tag reportedly prevented Brady from hitting the open market after the 2019 season, his last with the Patriots. The revamped Rodgers contract signed in July prevents the Packers from awarding him the franchise tag after the 2022 season, when he is eligible to become a free agent.

In 2018, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ​​negotiated through an agent to secure a rare deal that was 100% guaranteed, like Major League Baseball and NBA The Percentage guaranteed money in NFL contracts is increasing, but for most players it is less than 70%, making it easier for teams to justify removing players.

Agents argue that part of their role is to keep players away from deals that give teams too much weight.

“There are so many different ways you can’t get your money in the NFL,” said Joby Branion, who runs Vanguard Sports Group, an agency that represents 36 NFL players, including Von Miller of the Denver Broncos and Keenan Allen. of the Los Angeles Chargers. . “The best agents will understand that the most important part of any negotiation is leverage. Guarantees in the NFL are not guarantees like in other sports. “

Agents also pay for the best prospects to train for the combine and discuss their draft value with GMs. Once they have joined a squad, agents help players find marketing opportunities and track their needs throughout the season.

“It’s not just about negotiating the contract and washing the player’s hands,” said Kim Miale, an NFL agent who heads the football division at Roc Nation Sports, who represents the Giants running back. Saquon Barkley, Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette and others.

Still, some players do a lot of these things themselves. Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said he negotiated a $ 54 million three-year extension in 2019 not only to avoid paying his agent, but to become a smarter businessman. He’s read the league’s collective agreement, studied other players’ contracts, and sought advice from business executives, team owners and even Michael Jordan.

During the process he was aware of how unusual a path he was taking.

“There were a lot of people who thought that players weren’t able to negotiate their contracts successfully, so I knew that once I committed to doing it, I had to do it right because I knew there were a lot of eyeballs that wanted me not to be successful, ”Wagner said.

The union is not pushing players one way or another to hire agents. But it allows self-represented players to access its contract database and review any contract language proposals, just like it does for agents. Since 2016, the union has required agents to send all contracts with an average value of $ 2 million or more per year to union lawyers for review to ensure agents are adequately protecting their clients.

“The union-agent relationship is complicated and at times confrontational,” said George Atallah, spokesperson for the NFL Players Association. “But when it comes to representing players, we haven’t changed our model of delivering agent services.

Although only 17 players currently represent themselves, according to the NFLPA, but that could change in the years to come as college athletes, now allowed to make money from their names, pictures and likenesses before going pro, are better off. informed of their value and how others benefit from it.

“With the rules of name, image and likeness, you’re going to have more young people who recognize their worth,” said Charles Grantham, director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall and a former NBA agent and union executive. Agents could be forced to cut fees to secure players, he added. “It will definitely change the economy of the business. “

Over time, Grantham and others said, the awareness of the younger generation could lead them to take the same leap as Jackson.

“These are largely players who wake up and realize the power they have and how they can execute it if they educate themselves the way they should,” Wagner said. “It’s all part of a larger picture of players becoming more aware of their potential outside of the sport they play. “

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