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NFL Lamar Jackson

How Unprecedented Is The Lamar Jackson Situation?

  • Daniel Olinger
  • April 7, 2023
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In the Super Bowl era, there are only three quarterbacks who have had a better winning percentage through their first five seasons while starting at least 40 total games than Lamar Jackson. One is Tom Brady. Another is Patrick Mahomes (the third is actually Jim McMahon).

There are other ways in which one can confirm Jackson’s greatness. He’s also one of only three quarterbacks to have won an MVP within his first five seasons since 2000. He is the only quarterback to ever tally more than 4,000 rushing yards through the first five years of his career. In his five years in Baltimore, the Ravens have finished with the best overall record in the NFL, won a playoff game, and have won double-digit regular-season games four times. Jackson is indisputably a very good quarterback who has succeeded at the professional level. 

And yet no one around the NFL seems to want him. 

Due to a saga of contract negotiations that have been more complex than a Christopher Nolan movie, the Ravens have placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on Jackson, meaning that the other 31 teams in the NFL—most of which do not have a quarterback as good as Jackson—could acquire him for two first-round picks and a very hefty contract that NFL owners do not want to fully guarantee if they can help it. Jackson has tweeted that he requested a trade from the Ravens on March 2 after they failed to meet his contract demands.

Owners, teams, and coaches alike have gone out of their way publicly to confirm that they will not pursue one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and at worst its second-best openly available quarterback (depending on how one views Aaron Rodgers). The general response from fans and media to this is the belief that the NFL teams are colluding to make sure that no one hands Jackson the fully-guaranteed mega-deal that he desires in order to not set a precedent of quarterbacks receiving fully-guaranteed contracts on the open market moving forward. 

With a situation as convoluted as this one, trying to confidently predict which team Jackson will be playing for come September seems like a fool’s errand. But, the contract dispute and subsequent trade request do raise the question—has a quarterback as accomplished as Jackson ever been dealt from his first team this early in his career?

Accomplished is the key word there. Yes, Brett Favre was traded after just a single year with the Atlanta Falcons, but in 1992, he was just a second-round pick out of Southern Miss who had yet to complete a pass in a professional setting. Similarly, highly touted prospects like John Elway and Eli Manning who demanded trades did so prior to their entrance into the NFL. Even though the league clearly valued them, any franchise that traded for them would inherently be making a risky decision in acquiring a talent they had yet to see suit up for a single NFL game. Jackson—for all the “risk” that some want to talk about in regards to him—is a proven commodity, and at the very worst has been one of the league’s 10-best quarterbacks in each of the last four seasons.

Plenty of elite quarterbacks have changed teams via trade demand, free agency, or even a trade made solely at the team’s behest. Favre, Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Warren Moon, and Rodgers (soon) all ended or will end their career having worn at least two different jerseys. The major difference in comparing those legends to Jackson, quite obviously, is the age. All of those previous names were well into their thirties by the time they got traded or left for greener pastures, while Jackson is still a healthy 26 years old.

Scouring the histories of quarterback trades on Stathead and Pro Football Reference, here is every QB that has been dealt that one could draw similarities to Lamar’s situation without being laughed out of the room: Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, Ryan Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Foles, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler, Matt Cassel, Daunte Culpepper, Brad Johnson, Jeff George, and (going way, way back) Jim Everett, Jim Plunkett, Roman Gabriel, Fran Tarkenton, and Frank Ryan.

I was generous to include some of these names as comparables (hi, Jeff George), but these 18 quarterbacks had at least accomplished something of note before being traded by their respective teams not too far into their professional careers. 

The Watson trade is already the deal the NFL is using as the black box in the mutual ceasefire to not go and trade for Jackson. Watson was undoubtedly an elite quarterback during his first four seasons with the Houston Texans, but his off-field misconduct obviously changed the situation involving his switching of teams so greatly that comparing the desirability of adding him to your franchise versus adding Jackson is faulty. Some teams might not want to add Jackson because he’s missed a few games here and there and doesn’t currently employ an agent, but Watson had actual criminal allegations filed against him by more than two dozen women. Some teams would say they could not morally accept adding that player to their teams; others internally were probably more concerned about the in-season suspension that was sure to come. Regardless, the incentive any team had to go out and acquire Watson last off-season was greatly diminished, and the Browns broke ranks in doing so.

Wentz is a better comparison point than one might think at first glance. Just like Jackson, he had an MVP-caliber year during his sophomore campaign with the Eagles (finishing second and likely would have won the award had he not torn his ACL in the final month of the season). The difference, however, lies in what happened to the two players in their fifth and “final” season before being traded or requesting a trade from their incumbent team. Jackson was still able to rush for more than 700 yards and account for 20 of his team’s 27 offensive touchdowns in his team’s 12 games played. 2020 Wentz, on the other hand, led the league in total interceptions that year despite getting benched for the final four games of the season. Wentz was traded because his team did not want him anymore at any price. The Ravens still want Jackson, but can’t agree on the terms. 

Going through all the other names, Jackson continues to be a more desirable option than the others were at the time. Tannehill and Palmer had both crossed over to the wrong side of 30 and had never been as good as Jackson before the time of their trades. Garoppolo, Cassel, and Foles both had a very small sample size of games to their names when their teams decided to move on. Alex Smith and Drew Bledsoe had both just gotten benched before they were offered up to the rest of the NFL. And going back all the way to a legend like Steve Young, it goes back to the earlier point made with Favre—there was simply no established track record of success at the NFL level to that point. He had started one season in Tampa and played poorly enough that they were comfortable trading him for a second-round pick, a fourth-round pick, and two middling players. 

When the Bears and Broncos got bored in 2009 and just decided to swap Cutler and Orton for each other, both had established themselves as starting-level signal callers, but between the two of them they finished with the same combined number of career Pro Bowl selections as Tyler Huntley currently holds. Neither was as close to being as accomplished as Jackson. 

Quite honestly, the three best comparisons to Jackson on this list are Culpepper, Gabriel, and Tarkenton. Culpepper was traded away by the Vikings before the 2006 season when he was still just 29 years old and had previously garnered Pro Bowl recognition three times and more impressively had finished second in Offensive Player of the Year voting in 2004. In his final season in Minnesota, he had a brutal, Wentzian-esque start, throwing only six touchdowns to 12 interceptions in seven games before suffering a season-ending injury. The Dolphins were able to trade for Culpepper at the price of just a second-round pick, and just four seasons later, his time in the NFL was over.

Gabriel and Tarkenton are major throwbacks but were the only two other players on the list aside from Steve Young to have won an MVP. Gabriel was 33 years old when the Eagles traded for him in 1973 and was coming off a down-year by his standards, though he rounded with the Birds in ‘73 to lead the NFL in both total passing yards and touchdowns. Tarkenton has one of the weirder careers in NFL history, flip-flopping between the Vikings and Giants throughout, starting every season, winning awards and breaking records, and throwing the fifth-most interceptions in NFL history. The first time the original scrambling quarterback was traded was in 1967 after the Giants gave up their 1967 and 1968 first-round picks (with the 1967 pick being second overall in the draft) as well as their ‘67 second-round pick. Similarly, the Eagles acquired Gabriel for the hefty price of two first-round picks in 1974 and 1975, as well as a third-round pick and two quality rotation players at other positions

Tarkenton and Gabriel are truly the only two players on the list that one could argue were as accomplished and as desirable as Jackson at the time of their trades. 

That just goes to show how unprecedented this current situation is in the modern era of football. One has to go all the way back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to find the last time a talent on Jackson’s level was up for grabs. Since then, teams have been hesitant to give up on these franchise-changing quarterbacks so early on in their playing careers—and for good reason. 

We don’t know who Jackson will be playing for in the 2023-24 season, but if I had the power to get him at the price of just two first-round picks and a large contract, I would want it to be my team. Opportunities like this just don’t come around in the NFL very often.

Written By

Daniel Olinger