Just recently, I wrote an article asking whether the Colts should trade for Lamar Jackson. Judging by the response to the article, the Colts fanbase is divided on getting Jackson but doesn’t lack strong opinions on the issue. One person who liked the article was Owner Jim Irsay, take from that what you will.
Over the past few days, the Jackson to Indianapolis rumors have reached new levels. First came the news that a Colts plane had spent an extended stay in Baltimore last week. That news caused barely a ripple compared to Lamar Jackson’s tweet revealing he requested a trade from the Ravens on March 2nd.
in regards to my future plans. As of March 2nd I requested a trade from the Ravens organization for which the Ravens has not been interested in meeting my value, any and everyone that’s has met me or been around me know I love the game of football and my dream is to help a team
— Lamar Jackson (@Lj_era8) March 27, 2023
Jackson’s tweet would certainly seem to indicate that him not being a Baltimore Raven next season is a significantly more likely possibility than we would have assumed at the start of the new NFL year. If Jackson is available, the Colts have to be a potential suitor. Indianapolis badly needs a new QB and while they’re in a good spot to draft a rookie QB at 4, they likely won’t be able to get one of the two highest-ranked prospects in Stroud and Young.
Having already explored whether I think Indianapolis should pursue Jackson, today I’m going to assume the Colts are interested in him and explore how they’d pull off any deal for the former MVP.
Under the terms of Jackson’s non-exclusive Franchise Tag, NFL teams with their next two first-round draft picks can begin speaking with Jackson. Should they come to an agreement, Baltimore will have the option to match that deal. Should the Ravens fail to match the deal, Jackson would have his new team and the Ravens would have that team’s next two first-round picks.
There are two points here that I think are important to clarify. The first is that, should any deal happen after the draft, Jackson would cost a team’s 2024 and 2025 first-round picks. As opposed to their 2023 and 2024 picks if a deal happens before the draft. The second point is that Jackson’s franchise tag wouldn’t prevent teams from agreeing to a trade for Jackson on different terms to those set out in the franchise tag, providing those terms were satisfactory to all parties.
These points are important because I think some combination of these factors will be necessary if Indianapolis is to get Lamar Jackson. I wrote that I don’t think the Colts should get Jackson, although the prospect of him playing home games at the Lucas Oil Stadium is equal parts exciting and enticing. I suggested Chris Ballard and Jim Irsay should draft Anthony Richardson at 4 instead and trust Shane Steichen to develop him into a franchise Quarterback.
However, if Indianapolis isn’t sold on Richardson’s ability to fulfill his undoubtedly impressive potential, trading for Jackson would make a lot of sense. If the Colts do get Jackson, I don’t think it’ll be via a franchise tag offer sheet before the draft.
One of the biggest obstacles to Lamar in Indianapolis is the draft capital required to get him. Two first-round picks is a steep price. This is especially true when you consider a hypothetical suitor, such as Indy, where the team in question possesses a top-5 selection in the current draft, as well as a projected top-10 pick for the second pick.
Franchise tag rules dictate those picks are the team’s next two first-round selections and are their team’s original first-round pick(s). Yet aside from that, the rules view every first-round pick equally, whether that is the 1st or the 31st pick of the draft.
So Indianapolis couldn’t trade down in the first round this year and then sign Jackson to an offer sheet before the draft. But they could trade their 4th overall pick to a QB-needy team that loves Richardson or Levis (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, or even Tennessee perhaps?) to recoup additional draft capital and then trade their 2024 and 2025 first-round picks to Baltimore.
This would allow the Colts to address other needs with their (lower) first-round pick this year, and potentially still leave them with first-round picks in future drafts even after getting Jackson. Because the franchise tag doesn’t care how high a first-round pick is, the Colts would essentially have conjured extra draft capital without losing anything.
On the other hand, because this all has to take place after the draft, it is an all-or-nothing approach. If the Colts attempted this but couldn’t get Jackson for any reason (if, for example, Baltimore matched their offer), Indianapolis would have no way forward at QB beyond Gardner Minshew as the starter for the entire 2023 season and being back at square one for 2024.
For these reasons, I could envisage the Colts agreeing to a trade for Jackson with the Ravens before the draft. This trade couldn’t involve more draft capital than the two first-round picks set out by the franchise tag, but wouldn’t have to include two first-round picks.
For this scenario to come to pass, I expect Baltimore would have given up hope of agreeing to a long-term deal with Lamar and additionally, fear that he’d hold out for the season if asked to play for the Ravens on the franchise tag. The Athletic’s Zak Keefer spoke to the Pat McAfee show this week and noted that a Lamar Jackson holdout or possible holdout would change the leverage between Jackson and the Ravens, especially with respect to a potential trade.
I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on Jackson, and therefore know what he might or might not do, but his decisions to not hire an agent and to make his trade request public just as his coach was getting interviewed suggests an independence of thought from Jackson that could mean he’d be willing to holdout this year.
What could a pre-draft trade between Baltimore and Indianapolis for Jackson look like if it was prompted by a potential Jackson holdout? A straight trade of Jackson for the 4th overall pick could be possible if the relationship between Jackson and Baltimore became truly broken. The Ravens would have to view the pick as their best chance of replacing Jackson and would likely have to really fall in love with Anthony Richardson.
Alternatively, we could see a similar situation to the one I outlined earlier, one where the Colts trade down from 4 to a team that loves Richardson or Levis and then uses the resulting draft capital to trade for Jackson. In this scenario, both the Colts trading down and the Jackson to Colts trade would be agreed and finalized before the draft.
One of the main barriers to the Colts getting Jackson is his supposed contract demands and in particular, the amount of guaranteed money he’s after. It’s been reported that the overall money Jackson’s after wouldn’t be a problem for the Colts, but that Jim Irsay doesn’t like fully guaranteed contracts. Irsay wouldn’t have to put Jackson’s money into escrow until March 2024, so would have some time to find the cash.
Our own Jay Robins has discussed how Indianapolis could create enough cap space to give Jackson an offer Baltimore couldn’t match. Although before anyone gets too excited, Stephen Holder reports that Jackson’s contract demands at the moment appear to be a non-starter for any NFL team.
All this seems to suggest that Indianapolis could find the money to sign Jackson if they really wanted to. The sticking point is how much money (and guaranteed money) they think he’s worth, rather than their ability to find that cash. I won’t repeat the arguments I made in my previous article, but there are good reasons for the Colts to be reluctant to pay Jackson a market-setting contract.
If Indianapolis is to make a deal with Jackson, I think it’s more likely to be a shorter deal, say for 3 years rather than 5. That would be lower risk than a five-year deal and could allow for lower average money and guaranteed money. This is because Jackson would be facing a bigger payday if things went well when his subsequent contract is being negotiated.
One of the main factors determining whether any team thinks Jackson is worth a fully guaranteed contract is how healthy they expect him to be in the years to come. I found Nate Atkins’ article on the pros and cons of the Colts pursuing Jackson really interesting on this point. Nate discusses how Indianapolis would likely try and alleviate Jackson’s injury risk by having him run less and throw more. Nate suggests leaning on Jonathan Taylor’s exceptional running ability and notes Jackson has never had a similar bell cow running back in Baltimore.
Making use of the deep ball, passing more, and having an athletic QB run smarter all fit with a Shane Steichen offense and what he achieved with Jalen Hurts. At the risk of discussing again whether the Colts should pursue Jackson, I do think Nate makes some excellent points that will no doubt be part of the Colts’ thinking as they ponder pursuing Jackson.
Ultimately, I still think the Colts getting Jackson is unlikely. On the contrary, if Jackson does end up in Indianapolis, I expect it will be through a direct trade with Baltimore or an offer sheet after the draft. I still can’t see Indianapolis giving up the 4th overall pick and next year’s first for Jackson.
Whatever the Colts are doing, the relationship between Jackson and Baltimore is a fascinating variable we should all continue to monitor. I don’t expect the rumors linking Jackson to Indianapolis to die down until either Jackson signs a long-term deal with the Ravens or the Colts draft their franchise Quarterback.