Lamar Jackson announced today that he has requested a trade from the Baltimore Ravens. The announcement comes a month before the NFL Draft and a week after free agency has slowed down. The quarterback market was relatively bare this offseason, so adding a player of Jackson’s caliber boosts it significantly. He is a former league MVP who has become one of the best duel threat quarterbacks in the history of the game. At 26 years old, he is still one of the younger starting quarterbacks in the league and could very well still be ascending into a greater player. The two questions the Colts need to be asking are: can they afford him and should they go for him?
How much does he cost?
In order to determine his cost, it needs to be broken down into 2 parts:
- Trade Cost
- Monetary Cost
If we look at two recent mega quarterback trades, we can start to get an idea of what he could cost. Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson were both traded in the last 12 months, so those are good starting points.
Watson, who was considered a top 7-8 quarterback talent in the NFL (like Jackson) at the time of his trade was traded for 3 first round picks, 1 third round pick and 2 fourth round picks. The first round pick in 2022 was the 13th overall pick.
Wilson, who was 33 at the time of the trade, was traded for 2 first round picks, 2 second round picks, a 5th round pick and three players, two of which being quality starters in Shelby Harris and Noah Fant.
To me, both of those trades were overpayments, but because Jackson is a more valuable player than both, I think those deals, especially the Watson one is a good example of what the Ravens could expect for someone like Lamar.
It is my opinion, if they were just using draft picks, the Colts would have to give up the following in order to get Lamar Jackson:
- 2 First Round Picks (4th Overall in 2023, 2024)
- 2 Second Round Pick (2024, 2025)
- 2 Third Round Picks (2023, 2025)
- 1 Fourth Round Picks (2024)
The Browns had to give up 3 first round picks, but none of those picks were a top 4 pick in a good quarterback draft, so that counts for a lot.
His monetary cost isn’t too difficult to guess, as he’s announced or implied what he wants. He wants a contract like Deshaun Watson, who signed a 5 year, $230M contract fully guaranteed, which was unprecedented and as we’ve come to see, also broke the quarterback market.
Based on this, Jackson would most likely want a 5 year, $240-250M contract with at least 80% of it guaranteed. That type of contract makes it nearly impossible to get out of before Year 4 or 5 depending on how it’s constructed and it puts his average annual salary between 48M and 50M per year. Based on my estimates, his cap hit could account for 19-24% of the team’s overall salary cap each season. In short, the Colts or any team would need be completely all in on Lamar for at least a few seasons and they would have to hit on a bunch of draft choices since signing big free agents will be difficult.
Can they and should the Colts go for him?
Before we even ask if they should go for him, they need to ask if they can go for him. In terms of draft picks, they have the ammunition required.
In terms of salary cap space, this is where it becomes tricky. At the moment, the Colts currently have 20M in cap space (according to Over the Cap). If the Colts were to trade for Jackson, they would not need to account for draft pick cap hits since they won’t have any big ones, so it’s safe to assume that most of the 20M is free to use. However, If Lamar Jackson accounts for 24% of the cap in 2023, that means we can expect his cap hit to 51.75M. Of course, teams usually tend to backload contracts so Lamar’s cap hit would probably not be 24% in 2023, but it’s better to prepare for the higher number. Using the higher cap hit of 51.75M and assuming the Colts need to leave 3M on the side for in-season transactions, the Colts would need to have around 55M in cap space for this move to work. The general cap space range required would be more around 47-55M.
At 20M in cap space, the Colts would need to free up at least 30M in order to make the Jackson trade and signing work. How can they free at up?
- Cutting Ryan Kelly — Saves 10.2M (2M more than trading him)
- Trading or cutting Kenny Moore — Saves 8.2M or 7.7M
- Cutting Nick Foles — Saves 2.1M
These first three moves wouldn’t be too difficult, but the potential Moore trade would have to be done in dump off fashion, similar to how the Colts traded away Stephon Gilmore for nearly nothing. Those three moves (assuming Moore is traded) would save around 20.5M so the Colts would need to find at least one more way of clearing up the space.
If you look at the top earning players on the Colts, you see the following names:
- Darius Leonard
- DeForest Buckner
- Braden Smith
- Ryan Kelly (who would already be cut)
- Quenton Nelson
- Grover Stewart
- Mo Alie-Cox
In my opinion, Smith and Nelson are untouchable as they are good offensive linemen on an already weak line so getting rid of them will further demolish an already poor group. Grover Stewart at 10M cap hit is better value than Buckner or Leonard at 20M, but the Colts can cut of Mo-Alie Cox and save 3M.
That would leave around 7M in cap space to find, which the Colts can do by restructuring Darius Leonard’s contract. If they restructure Leonard, they could save 10M. You want to avoid restructuring but in this case, restructuring is better than losing Leonard or Buckner. The restructure, however, would add:
- 4M to Leonard’s cap hit in 2024
- 3.5M in 2025
- 3.5M in 2026
It’s not ideal, but the damage isn’t unmanageable.
So the Colts can make it work, since doing those 5 moves would free up around 34.5M, which would push their cap space number to around 55M, and that would allow them to trade for and sign Jackson without issue.
Based on how the draft is looking, the Colts will not have a shot at CJ Stroud or Bryce Young, so that leaves the Colts with Anthony Richardson or Will Levis. So, the Colts need to ask themselves who they would rather have:
- Lamar Jackson, the loss of several high draft picks and yearly cap hit between 19% and 24% of your overall salary cap
- Anthony Richardson or Will Levis, keep all your future and current draft picks plus you save approximately 40M in cap space for the next 3-4 seasons.
In order to determine whether it’s worth taking Richardson or Levis early, it’s important to look at NFL Draft data.
Of the last 39 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft:
- 16 are still starting quarterbacks, of which 7 are from 2018 or earlier.
- If you take out top 3 selections (since the Colts probably won’t be in the top 3), then you have 10 who are still starting quarterbacks, of which 5 are from 2018 or earlier.
- 3 have made All Pro teams
- Only 1 has won at least one Super Bowl
The draft is a crapshoot. If you hit a bullseye and get a top 10 talent (like Mahomes, Allen or Jackson) then you get the superstar at a cheap discount for 4-5 seasons. This is the dream scenario. If you don’t hit the bullseye, then you end up with a Ryan Tannehill, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff situation where they might be good at times, but you aren’t winning a Super Bowl with them as your starting quarterback. They might also end up with a Zach Wilson situation, which is a nightmare. The numbers above indicate that you aren’t likely to select a superstar quarterback in the top 10 of the draft.
In trading for and signing Lamar Jackson, the Colts get a known talent who is a former MVP and is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks to ever come into the NFL. The Colts would surround him with a capable coaching staff that helped develop and mold Jalen Hurts into the superstar that he is today. Trading and signing for Jackson is very costly, but it’s the safer play. Drafting Richardson or Levis is not costly, but if they both fail to meet expectations, then the Colts aren’t leaving the basement of the NFL for the next few seasons. At least with Lamar Jackson, you get a superstar talent with a good coaching staff and some emerging or established talents in Michael Pittman Jr, Jonathan Taylor and even Alec Pierce or Jelani Woods. There are still holes overall, but the Colts would have enough high end talent to carry them into the playoffs, especially in the weak AFC South.
The arguments against Lamar Jackson will mainly be about the cost and history of mega quarterback trade. The cost is understandable and it’s a big investment. The way it should be seen is that if the Colts swing and miss on Lamar Jackson, they are screwed for at least the 3-4 seasons. If the Colts swing and miss on their quarterback draft pick, they are also screwed for the next 2-3 seasons. Either way, if the quarterback they select doesn’t pan out, this team is screwed for the next little while, so might as well pick and make the investment in the one who has a proven track record in the NFL.
In terms of big quarterback trades, some have worked, like Matthew Stafford, and others have not, such as Russell Wilson. Wilson’s issues can be blamed on poor coaching and a lot of injuries around him on top of Wilson displaying a serious lack of comfort on top of bad timing and decision making. The jury is still out on Deshaun Watson; he played poorly this season, but after a long layoff and joining the team halfway through the season won’t do you any favours. This season will be the real test for him.
In the end, if you’re a mega corporation, do you pay big money for a large-cap, stable company or do you look to invest more in small-cap startups with higher growth potential. It all depends on the philosophy of the CEO, and in this case Chris Ballard has a proven track record of not making big moves, so my expectation is that the Colts stay put at #4 and pick Richardson or Levis. However, Ballard’s job security isn’t exactly safe, so would he be wiling to make an uncharacteristic move in an effort to appease his owner (or the shareholders if we use the corporation example) so that he keeps his job? He might.
In my opinion, I think the Colts should go for Jackson. The Colts have been in quarterback purgatory for years and as mentioned before, the NFL draft is a crapshoot so if the Colts swing and miss, they’re more likely to do it with a draft pick than with Lamar Jackson. To me, the trade cost is worse than the financial cost. Teams can make it work with little cap space, but the trade cost would put more reliance on value free agency signings and late draft pick impacts. This is an area Ballard excels at. The defense is still projected to be a relatively strong unit and the Colts already have a very good running back room led by Jonathan Taylor, so adding Jackson could be adding fuel to the fire.
Nothing is ever guaranteed, especially in the NFL, where every decision is essentially an educated guess. This “guess” is probably the most important of Ballard’s career, let’s see how it turns out.
What Should the Colts do?
This poll is closed
Trade and sign for Lamar Jackson
Stay put and draft a QB early