By any argument, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has had an exceptional career through his first three N.F.L. seasons.
Drafted at the end of the first round in 2018, he quickly emerged as one of the league’s most dynamic players, winning six of his first seven regular season starts in his first year and the Most Valuable Player Award in his second. At 24, he is a face of the league and the undisputed centerpiece of the Ravens’ future.
Those are among the facts that undoubtedly will be brought up as Jackson and Baltimore executives negotiate an extension of his rookie contract, the massive payday that is usually the largest salary bump in an N.F.L. player’s career and that will determine the market for other franchise quarterbacks nearing the end of their entry-level deals.
His peers have already set the table. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in March signed a four-year, $160 million contract extension (with $126 million in total guaranteed money). In August, Bills quarterback Josh Allen received a six-year, $258 million deal (with $150 million in total guaranteed money).
But as Jackson haggles with his team over the size and conditions of a new deal, he stands out for handling the matter on his own, one of 17 N.F.L. players not represented by a traditional sports agent. Instead, Jackson has enlisted advisers, including his mother, Felicia Jones, to work out the clauses, exceptions and trade-offs.
They have offered little insight into the process. He could follow the trend and ask for a four-year deal to increase his flexibility, or he could try to secure a longer and larger contract as Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Allen did.
Jones did not respond to a request for comment.
By proceeding without traditional representation, Jackson is challenging football orthodoxy, partly promoted by agents, that players can’t possibly understand complex contracts or negotiate one successfully. At the same time, Ravens team executives — who declined to speak for this story — can’t limit their relationship to only talking to Jackson about his labor. They also must tell him what they think his labor is worth.
“The agents have told the whole world that the players can’t do anything without them,” said Russell Okung, who began representing himself halfway through his 12-year N.F.L. career as an offensive lineman. “By Lamar going out on his own, it’s scary to the agent world. If he figures it out, others will too.”
The challenges stretch beyond dollar signs. “He’s also a Black quarterback and people are used to labor looking a certain way,” Okung added. “He’s pushing up against a myriad of narratives all at once.”
For years, players have complained that agents don’t do enough to earn their fees, which can run as high as 3 percent of a contract’s value. Saving hundreds of thousands of dollars is largely what motivated Richard Sherman, Okung, DeAndre Hopkins and others in recent years to negotiate their own deals, some of which were panned in the media.
While those players ditched their agents midcareer, Jackson has gone without an agent from the outset.
Under the league’s peculiar economics, that’s understandable because rookie pay scales are tightly prescribed, leaving little room for negotiation. Teams operate under rigid salary caps, and often pick up the fifth-year option in star players’ contracts to keep them at a cheaper figure for an additional year before they become free agents, or in the Ravens’ case with Jackson, to allow for more time to negotiate an extension.
Teams can also slap a “franchise tag” on players — a one-year designation of either the average salary of the top five players at the same position (over the past five seasons) or 120 percent of the player’s previous salary — to refrain from paying what the market will bear. To hang on to their star quarterbacks, whose salaries are growing far faster than those of players at other positions, teams can also fill the rest of their rosters with rookies and free agents willing to play for minimum salaries.
Jackson’s decision to forgo traditional representation is inviting more scrutiny than other stars’ negotiations because he is in line for a mammoth contract extension that will help set the future market for franchise quarterbacks. Deciphering N.F.L. contracts is complicated because teams can include a host of clauses that when triggered can cost the player dearly. Getting injured away from the field might allow a team to withhold payment. So might an arrest, suspension or an unexcused absence from the club.
A player’s yearly salary can be relatively small compared to signing bonuses, payments for making a team’s roster, payments for appearing at voluntary training camps and hitting performance targets like leading a statistical category.
Top-tier quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have in recent negotiations prevented their teams from assigning them franchise tags. The tag would have kept Brady from hitting the open market after the 2019 season, his last with the Patriots. The reworked contract Rodgers signed in July prevents the Packers from assigning 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 reach a rare contract that was 100 percent guaranteed, like those in Major League Baseball and the N.B.A. The percentage of guaranteed money in N.F.L. contracts is increasing, but for most players it is below 70 percent, which makes it easier for teams to justify cutting players.
Agents argue that part of their role is to steer players away from deals that give teams too much leverage.
“There are so many different ways to not get your money in the N.F.L.,” said Joby Branion, who runs Vanguard Sports Group, an agency that represents 36 N.F.L. players, including Von Miller of the Denver Broncos and Keenan Allen of the Los Angeles Chargers. “The best agents are going to understand that the most important part of any negotiation is leverage. Guarantees in the N.F.L. are not guarantees like in other sports.”
Agents also pay for top prospects to train for the combine and talk up their draft value with general managers. Once they join a team, agents help players find marketing opportunities and keep track of their needs during the season.
“It’s not just doing negotiating the contract and washing your hands of the player,” said Kim Miale, an N.F.L. agent who leads the football division at Roc Nation Sports, which represents Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette and others.
Still, some players do many of these things themselves. Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said he negotiated a three-year, $54 million extension in 2019 not just to avoid paying his agent, but to become a smarter businessman. He read the league’s collective bargaining agreement, studied other player contracts and sought advice from corporate 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 that felt players were not able to negotiate their contracts successfully, so I knew once I committed to doing it, I had to do it right because I knew there was a lot of eyeballs that wanted me not to succeed,” Wagner said.
The union does not push players either way on hiring agents. But it provides players who represent themselves access to its database of contracts and reviews any proposed contract language, just as it does for agents. Since 2016, the union has required agents to send all contracts that average $2 million or more a year to the union’s lawyers for review to ensure that agents are sufficiently protecting their clients.
“The union-agent relationship is complicated and sometimes adversarial,” said George Atallah, the spokesman for the N.F.L. Players Association. “But when it comes to representing players, we haven’t changed our model of providing services to the agents.”
For now, just 17 players represent themselves according the N.F.L.P.A., but that may change in the coming years as college athletes, now allowed to earn money off their names, images and likenesses before turning pro, become better educated about their value and how others profit from it.
“With name, image and likeness rules, you’re going to have more young people recognizing their worth,” said Charles Grantham, the director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall and a former N.B.A. agent and union executive. Agents may be forced to cut their fees to secure players, he added. “It’s definitely going to change the economics of the business.”
Over time, Grantham and others said, the younger generation’s awareness could lead them to take the same leap as Jackson.
“A lot of it is players waking up to realizing the power that they have and how they can execute if they educate themselves the way that they should,” Wagner said. It’s all part of a bigger picture of players becoming more aware of their potential outside of the sport that they play.”