Here's why some NFL players are lobbing accusations of collusion over Lamar Jackson
One year ago this week, two grand juries in Texas declined to indict Deshaun Watson on any charges related to the multiple women who alleged Watson had committed sexual assault or sexual misconduct while they were trying to administer massages to the then-Houston Texans quarterback.
As soon as Watson was in the clear criminally, multiple teams — the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints — jumped at the chance to trade for and sign Watson, who at that point hadn't played in a full season and was 28-25 as the Texans' starter with one playoff win.
The Cleveland Browns outbid everyone else, signing Watson to a five-year, fully guaranteed, $230 million contract and sending three first-round draft picks to Houston.
And yet here we are 12 months later and two of those three teams that were in hot pursuit of Watson and still without a long-term quarterback are telling reporters, including Yahoo! Sports' Jori Epstein, that they're out on Lamar Jackson. This came hours after the Baltimore Ravens placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on the QB, allowing any other team to make an offer and potentially sign him if the Ravens don't match.
Jackson was the NFL's second-ever unanimous MVP when he was 23. His Ravens have won 45 of his 61 career starts. He celebrated his 26th birthday eight weeks ago and is, by all accounts, a pillar in his South Florida neighborhood and in Baltimore. He can be acquired for two first-round picks and not the three Houston demanded, and he has not been accused of misconduct by over two dozen women. Yet ... he is not appealing to these QB-desperate teams, but Watson was?
You'll forgive us if we don't believe them.
Current and former players sense something is afoul, too. J.J. Watt, Robert Griffin III, Tyrann Mathieu, Jaquan Brisker and Quandre Diggs were among those casting suspicion on reports that teams that should want a quarterback don't want Jackson, with Diggs outright using the word collusion in his tweet and Mathieu saying anyone questioning Jackson's ability hasn't had to play defense against him.
You'll understand if we also smell a little collusion in the air, the stench wafting over all of this like a Rottweiler fresh off being sprayed by a skunk (don't ask how I know this).
Not long after details of Watson's megadeal came to light last March, Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti went on the record to express his displeasure with it, and that it would make negotiations with other quarterbacks harder.
Bisciotti and the Ravens could have signed Jackson to an extension in 2021, after his third season. That was long before the Browns' contract with Watson, so part of the reason he's in this messy situation now — assuming he doesn't want to be — is his own fault. Besides, the price for players, especially quarterbacks, never comes down. Fellow 2018 first-round draft pick Josh Allen signed a six-year extension with the Buffalo Bills in 2021 that includes $150 million in guaranteed money and maxes at $258 million. Jackson and Baltimore could have done something similar and didn't, and now the price has gone only up.
Jackson has suffered injuries in each of the past two seasons. It's also worth noting that the Ravens were in the top-third of the league in terms of man-games lost to injury in 2022 and lost the third-most in the league since 2009, and in the NFL Players Association survey Baltimore players graded strength coach Steve Saunders at an F-minus, far and away the worst in the league. It's likely not a coincidence that Saunders was fired last month.
(This is where we'll pause to reiterate that while it's admirable Jackson has been representing himself, the time for him to have gotten an agent or even a lawyer who could have battled it out with team brass at the negotiating table has long since passed.)
Bisciotti and other team owners are apparently still peeved that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam broke ranks to guarantee Watson's deal. That is not now, nor has it ever been or ever will be Lamar Jackson's problem.
If he has told Bisciotti and general manager Eric DeCosta that, as a league MVP who is more talented than Watson with none of the baggage, he deserves the same deal if not a little better, he is 100% correct.
If the owner class is salty with Haslam, don't invite him to whatever ludicrous Michelin-chef-catered-yacht- party-in-St.-Tropez they have planned for April and stop taking it out on Jackson and other players.
Of course, all of this should have been expected: the writing has long been on the wall, but if last week's revealing NFLPA player survey showed us anything, it's that a not-small number of these team owners don't actually care about winning, at least not on the field. They care about their own wealth, period.
There's nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that says every contract cannot be fully guaranteed. Team owners just refuse to do it, and will seemingly do everything they can to ensure it does not become the norm. There's also nothing stopping them from ending the current rule that requires teams to put all guaranteed contract monies, in cash, into an escrow account (though the structure of the Kansas City Chiefs' contract with Patrick Mahomes shows there are ways around that). They won't end the practice because it would open the door for franchise owners who are more cash poor to do more deals just like the one Watson received.
And the one Jackson deserves.