Lamar Jackson Is No. 2 on List of Players Under Most Pressure Next Season
Life happens fast in the NFL.
Two years ago, Lamar Jackson became just the second unanimous NFL MVP in league history, and he did it in only his second season, his first as a full-time starter.
Fast-forward to the present. Jackson, coming off a season in which his statistics declined and he missed five games due to an ankle injury and illness, has landed at No. 2 on Fox Sports' Chris Broussard's list of players who are under the most pressure entering the 2022 season.
"Ever since he won the MVP a few years ago, every year, touchdowns down, interceptions up, passer rating down, and even rushing — he hasn't rushed for as many yards per game," Broussard said on "First Things First." "So Lamar's got to prove again that he's that guy."
Beyond the statistical dip, Broussard said Jackson is under pressure because he hasn't signed a contract extension yet.
"Oddly, it seems like there's no urgency on his part to get it done," Broussard said. "If he signs a contract this offseason he'll come off [this] list because he's got his security. But until then, coming off injury, declining production, and a style of play that makes you susceptible to get injured, he's got to sign that contract or he'll be under duress."
Broussard's points are not without merit, but in regard to Jackson's performance in 2021, it's important to remember that Jackson was one of the leading MVP candidates early in the season.
He also was playing behind a makeshift offensive line and without running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards all season and first-round wide receiver Rashod Bateman for the first five games.
As far as statistics are concerned, Jackson's performance in leading the Ravens from a 19-point deficit in the third quarter to a 31-25 overtime win over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5 was historic.
His completion rate of 86 percent was the highest of any quarterback in NFL history who's attempted over 40 passes in a game, and he was the first player in NFL history with at least 400 passing yards (a franchise-record 442) and a completion percentage above 85 in a game.
Jackson has proven his critics wrong time and time again, and 2022 will present him with yet another opportunity to do so.
He's already getting started. Jackson was back on the field earlier this week throwing to Bateman and wide receiver James Poche II. Throwing mechanics trainer Adam Dedeaux, who also worked with Jackson last offseason, was there as well.
"Lamar is really determined," Head Coach John Harbaugh said at his season-ending press conference. "The conversations I've had with him, he's really, really determined. I mean, I can't even emphasize enough how determined he is to improve and get our offense where it needs to be."
On a side note, the player at No. 1 on Broussard's list of players under the most pressure is Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Are Ravens' Options Limited for Gaining Cap Relief Through Restructures and Extensions?
It's no secret that the Ravens don't have an abundance of cap space, and while cutting players is one way of creating cap room, it's not the only one.
Restructuring contracts and signing players to contract extensions also are options. However, The Baltimore Sun’s Jonas Shaffer said the Ravens aren't in a great position to do either.
"According to Over The Cap, only four teams can clear less cap space than the Ravens ($26.2 million) through simple restructures," Shaffer wrote. "One such move is considered unlikely: Given left tackle Ronnie Stanley's injury history, the Ravens aren't expected to convert his 2021 salary and create $6.3 million in cap relief. Should Stanley's ankle problems linger, the Ravens will need an escape plan with as little dead money as possible."
Shaffer said other restructures would be more prudent.
"Cornerback Marlon Humphrey is an obvious candidate," Shaffer wrote. "His $10 million salary in 2022 could be converted into an approximately $1 million salary and $9 million signing bonus, which, because of its proration over a deal that lasts through 2026, would reduce his 2022 cap hit from $17.5 million to $10.3 million.
"Elsewhere, a simple restructure of guard Kevin Zeitler's deal would save $2.4 million. For tight ends Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, restructures would amount to about $2 million apiece. Only three other Ravens — outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, kicker Justin Tucker and running back Gus Edwards — have contracts that would net over $1 million in savings."
Signing Jackson to a contract extension would significantly free up cap space. Jackson is guaranteed to make $23 million next season, the biggest cap hit on the team.
"A new contract would function like a restructured contract, converting much of that 2022 salary into a signing bonus that's amortized over the life of the new deal," Shaffer wrote. "The savings for the Ravens this year could be substantial.
"If Jackson were to sign a four-year extension identical to the one the Dallas Cowboys' Dak Prescott got last year, his cap hit would fall to $19.3 million. If Jackson's new deal mirrors Deshaun Watson's extension with the Texans, which Watson signed before the start of his fourth season in Houston, his hit would fall even further. Watson's cap charge in 2021, his fifth year under contract, was $15.9 million."
Shaffer said that because of the Ravens' aggressiveness in retaining homegrown players, few of the team's highest-paid players have contracts that General Manager Eric DeCosta might target for extensions.
"Stanley ($18.6 million cap hit in 2022), Humphrey ($17.5 million) and Andrews ($9.7 million) all signed multiyear deals within the past 16 months," Shaffer wrote. "Cornerback Marcus Peters ($15.5 million), who's entering the final year of his first extension after a lost 2021 season, turns 30 in January and wouldn't come cheap."
Despite the Ravens' challenging salary cap situation, DeCosta said during his season-ending press conference that the team will be able to free up money.
"I think we'll have enough salary cap room to do everything we need to do, to do responsible, good deals that work for the club but also work for the player," DeCosta said. "We've never been a big, huge free agency team. We've dabbled in it a little bit. We'll continue to look for players that benefit the club in different ways, certainly. Right player, right price, as always. We'll continue to look at players that we have whose contracts are expiring to try to get some deals done. I'm comfortable with that process."
Bradley Bozeman Named as One Free Agent Ravens Should Keep
Strengthening the offensive line is one of the Ravens' top priorities this offseason. They'll do so in the draft and perhaps in free agency. The latter doesn't necessarily mean signing a player outside the organization.
NFL.com’s Gil Brandt identified one pending free agent each team should keep. His choice for the Ravens is center Bradley Bozeman.
"I could see an argument for retaining a veteran defensive linemen (Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams or Justin Houston) on a short-term deal, or trying to extend linebacker Josh Bynes," Brandt wrote. "But Bozeman was in a groove in 2021, earning the 11th-best offensive grade among centers from Pro Football Focus and the fifth-best offensive grade on the team.
"In fact, he was one of the few reliable elements on both the offensive line and the roster in general in a year when Baltimore was beset by injuries and inconsistency. It makes sense to cement the 27-year-old's place in front of Lamar Jackson."
Josh Bynes Was Ravens' Most Improved Player in 2021
Bynes may not be the biggest name on the Ravens' defense, but he's been an important player during his three stints in Baltimore. The veteran linebacker was named the Ravens' most improved player in 2021 by Pro Football Focus.
"Bynes produced at a career-low level in his lone season as a Cincinnati Bengal in 2020. He turned in a 52.6 PFF grade that year — over 27.0 grading points lower than his 2019 campaign in Baltimore. He came back to the Ravens for 2021 and bounced back once he became the starter in Week 6. From that point on, Bynes was a top-10-graded linebacker in the NFL," PFF's Anthony Treash wrote.
The 32-year-old Bynes, who also has played with the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals, has played his best football with the Ravens. He signed with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and spent three seasons with the team. He made the final tackle in the Ravens' win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
Bynes returned to the Ravens several weeks into the 2019 season and helped them win 12 straight games.
This past season, Bynes went from the practice squad, to the 53-man roster, to the starting lineup. He took over at middle linebacker, taking the pressure off Patrick Queen by allowing the second-year linebacker to move to weakside linebacker.
- Campbell was named the most underrated interior defensive lineman in free agency by PFF.