While Colts don't rule out Lamar Jackson, here's what would keep it from happening

by 24USATVMarch 28, 2023, 12:20 p.m. 17

PHOENIX — After six different Week 1 starting quarterbacks in six straight seasons, after costly misses each of the last two years — the wreckage of which is still fresh in their minds — the Colts haven’t completely ruled out following a similar script in 2023, as ambitious and expensive and perilous as chasing a player like Lamar Jackson might be.

But, owner Jim Irsay made crystal clear late Monday night on the balcony of his hotel suite in Phoenix, one road he will not go down is awarding Jackson — or any player, for that matter — a fully guaranteed contract, something Jackson could be seeking after asking for the Ravens for a trade earlier this month.

“For me, for the good of the game, boy, I don’t believe fully guaranteed contracts would be good for our game at all, at all,” Irsay said. “I’ve seen what it’s done to other sports leagues and I just don’t think that it’s a positive … I line up more with the old-school owners, the Rooneys, the Maras, the Halases. Everyone has to change with the times, that sort of thing. Our game is great and it’s great for a number of reasons, but I don’t think guaranteed contracts make our game greater, I think it makes it worse.”

Even beyond the guaranteed contract debate, the conversation around pursuing the Ravens quarterback remains complicated, something the Colts are keenly aware of. But this is a team that’s determined to climb from the QB carousel that’s sabotaged back-to-back seasons, a team that’s tired of not having an answer at the most critical position on the field.

The motivation to solve this riddle is real, the stakes growing with each wasted season.

Irsay very much sounded like an owner determined to do it through the draft, not via a trade that would require a massive contract and cost the Colts two first-round picks.

“It has nothing to do with actual dollars,” Irsay said of a potential lucrative contact. “I mean, paying a contact like that is not a problem, not a problem for me, I know. That’s not an issue.

“I mean, the issue is, what’s the right thing to do for the franchise, in terms of what helps us win in the long run? I mean, you need more than just a quarterback.”

By that, Irsay means the lucrative contract Jackson would command would limit the team’s ability to address other roster needs. And the owner hates the idea of parting with two first-round picks, even for a talent like Jackson.

That the Colts are sitting at pick No. 4 in next month’s draft adds another layer of intrigue, not to mention obvious incentive: they’re behind two franchises — Carolina and Houston — that are almost assuredly grabbing the top two QBs off the board. Indy’s options don’t appear all that great, no matter how much they try to spin it.

Meanwhile, there’s Jackson, wanting out of Baltimore, too good to simply ignore. The Colts know this. They haven’t ruled out making a play for the 26-year-old former league MVP, a player who, if acquired, would instantly spark a sleepy franchise and catapult the Colts into AFC relevance.

“Any time a special player is available — which he is — you’ve got to do the work, alright?” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said Monday. “I’m not gonna get into deep discussions on where it’s at, or what we’re doing or what we might do, but what I’ll tell y’all is he’s a really good player, a really special player. But you never know how any of this will work out.”

Translation: We know where we’re at, and we know how good he is. We’re not saying no.

“We do our due diligence on every position, whether it’s the draft or free agency,” Steichen said. “But I got no update for you on that one.”

But based on Irsay’s words Monday night, Jackson very much seems like one of the more unlikely options at this point.

The owner is tired of the veteran route, scarred by the misses of the last two seasons and what it cost his team. He said Monday night he was firmly against trading for Carson Wentz before the 2021 season. “I did not want to do it … I wasn’t for it, and I voiced that,” he said.

Now, with the team’s highest pick in over a decade, he sees an opportunity for his franchise to build it back up the way he’s always preferred: through the draft. He repeatedly cited the league’s most successful teams — Kansas City, Buffalo, Philadelphia — all doing so with homegrown quarterbacks.

“When you have a rookie quarterback, it gives you the opportunity to build a franchise for the first three or four years,” he said, referring to the contract flexibility a rookie deal affords. “If you have a rookie quarterback, you know, you’re going to have a chance for those years to really have extra dollars to make your team better so.”

Even beyond Irsay’s hardline stance against guaranteed contracts, the Colts landing Jackson at this point remains a long shot for even more reasons, starting with the fact that the Ravens still hold considerable leverage. By placing the non-exclusive tag on the quarterback, the Ravens are allowing other teams to negotiate with Jackson while maintaining the ability to match any offer he agrees to and keep him in Baltimore.

If the Ravens were to decline an offer sheet that Jackson receivers from another team — surely, it’d have to be substantially more than what Baltimore’s already offered him — they would get two first-round picks in compensation from the team Jackson with which signs.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh reiterated what he’s said throughout the process Monday in Arizona, pledging that he still believes Jackson will be the Ravens’ starter in 2023.

“Thinking about Lamar all the time,” Harbaugh said. “Thinking about him as our quarterback. We’re building our offense around that idea. I’m just looking forward to getting back to football and I’m confident that’s going to happen.”

Ravens president Sashi Brown echoed that sentiment, telling The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec, “We love Lamar. We’re committed to getting something done.”

But Jackson’s trade request confirms what was widely assumed around the league. It’s not just that negotiations between the two sides are stuck at an impasse, it’s that the quarterback wants out.

Jackson is reportedly seeking either a fully guaranteed contract or something close to it. “The Ravens (have) not been interested in meeting my value,” he wrote on Twitter Monday. Even if Jackson settles for less than the $230 million deal Deshaun Watson got in Cleveland last year, it’d be a substantial financial investment — likely north of $150 million — that would require the guarantees to be immediately placed in escrow.

There’s no obvious motivation for the Colts to make any sort of move on this before the draft. Jackson, to date, hasn’t drawn significant interest from other teams, and if the Colts wait, they’ll keep the No. 4 pick, their reward for their disastrous 4-12-1 season in 2022. In the event Indianapolis lands Jackson after the draft, the Colts’ 2024 and 2025 first-rounders would head to Baltimore, likely much lower selections with Jackson on the roster.

The Colts have $20 million in salary cap space, and Ballard ruled out moving on from two veterans for whom he’s received trade calls recently — center Ryan Kelly and cornerback Kenny Moore II. Both struggled in 2022, and cutting either would free up $8 million in space, but Ballard vowed both would be Colts in 2023.

“They’re both great Colts, and we’re glad they’re here,” he said. “When you’ve got a good football player that is a great person and a great fit, it makes it hard to move away from those guys.”

Desperate as some on the outside are painting this franchise, that’s not how Ballard operates. The GM refuses to be boxed in, and won’t act out of fear — fear of upsetting his fanbase, or fear of losing his job. He’s long insisted that while drafting a quarterback will “get everyone off my ass” — his frequent choice of words — the best course of action for the franchise, in his mind, isn’t to force it, no matter how glaring the need is.

That’s why he resisted sending a haul of picks to Chicago in order to secure the first overall pick. (Carolina traded two first-round picks, two second-round picks and wide receiver D.J. Moore for the rights to No. 1.)

“Didn’t wanna make a blind decision without all the information,” Ballard said Monday. “And I know people might not understand that. But I think just history kind of tells you that, when you do that, you better know what you’re getting, and we weren’t quite ready to do that at that time. And then we feel like there’s enough depth in the draft that we were going to be OK.”

But the reality the Colts are left with: while the Panthers have their pick of quarterbacks at the top of the draft, Indy does not.

And Ballard’s prudence hasn’t always paid off. His resistance in recent years to select a young passer has led the Colts down the rocky path of scraping up discarded veterans from other teams. A year after missing badly on Carson Wentz, they missed badly on Matt Ryan. The result: a gruesome 19-game stretch — dating back to the Colts’ two-game collapse to close 2021 — that exposed the flaws in Ballard’s approach and the mistakes made that sunk a team on the brink of the playoffs to the bottom of the league.

Irsay downplayed the idea that Ballard’s on the hot seat, defending his GM’s credentials, but acknowledged “every coach and GM has to win in this league” and he wants to see progress in 2023.

Which is partly why the thinking’s shifted. No more swings on aging quarterbacks, for starters. Ballard’s never been a brazen spender in free agency and wasn’t all that impressed with the market this year, so he’s made mostly depth signings to date. On the quarterback front, he added veteran Gardner Minshew, who can start if needed or back up a rookie.

Irsay, too, is on board with a more measured approach, one where the Colts stop convincing themselves they’re closer than they actually are. That, more than anything, is the enduring lesson of 2021 and 2022, one Ballard and Irsay vowed to learn from.

“He knows the history of the game,” Ballard said of his boss, referencing Irsay’s experience with top-tier quarterbacks over the years. “He also knows how hard those guys are to acquire.”

Irsay seemed rejuvenated by the prospect of finally getting this right, of setting his team up for success for “the next 10 years.”

“It’s gonna be very, very important decision-making over the next month,” the owner said. “I mean, with the quarterbacks that are out there with the draft, picking where we’re picking, man oh man, this is a really important time to see what direction we go in.

“We’re not closing the door to any possibility or a high-paid player,” he continued. “You never do. But you simply are going to do what’s best for your franchise to win. It’s something where you just don’t wanna make a mistake, a mistake by impatience, or by rushing it.”


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