John Harbaugh made his statement Sunday. Even as his Ravens fell into a 23-3 hole in a home Wild Card game, he never lost his faith in rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. And though Jackson wasn’t able to will Baltimore back from the dead, one thing was obvious when he walked off the field to close out his first season as a pro; the Ravens are his team now.
So where does that leave Joe Flacco?
The one-time Super Bowl MVP and former highest-paid player in NFL history now faces an uncertain future after playing Wally Pipp to Jackson’s emerging Lou Gehrig. A midseason injury gave the former Heisman Trophy winner enough room to shine, and Jackson did just that. His 6-1 mark as a starter during the regular season provided Baltimore all the momentum it needed to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 and win the AFC North for the first time since 2012.
That doesn’t mean Flacco’s time with the Ravens is definitely over, but both the quarterback and his head coach certainly made it feel that way when they addressed the media after Sunday’s playoff loss.
“Joe can still play,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “Joe’s going to have a market, a lot of teams are going to want Joe. Joe Flacco is a great talent, he’s a better person, he’s the best quarterback in the history of the Ravens … He’s going to be just fine.”
“I love the people of Baltimore, man,” said Flacco. “To be honest, I can’t imagine a better 11 years. This place becoming my home and my children’s home. Definitely a group of fans and a community that I loved being around for 11 years.”
That gives the Ravens some extra homework this offseason. Flacco is still an asset, but the remaining three years and $79 million on his contract is a burden no team would be eager to take on. Trading the veteran quarterback will be difficult. But so will cutting him.
Releasing or trading Flacco will cost Baltimore $16 million in dead cap space for 2019
Flacco’s due $26.5 million for 2019, the first year of a three-year extension signed back in 2016. That makes him the seventh-highest paid player for 2019 (behind Ryan Tannehill!), which is one hell of an investment for a backup quarterback.
But releasing Flacco wouldn’t clear that money outright from their books. The $24 million signing bonus that came with that extension was split into three equal installments — one $8 million payment in 2018 and two more in 2019 and 2020. Cutting the veteran quarterback would push that remaining $16 million the club owes Flacco onto its 2019 salary cap.
That’s a lot of dead money to swallow, but it’s still a $10.5 million in savings for jettisoning a player who isn’t in the team’s future. Trading Flacco would be a more tenable solution for the Ravens, though it wouldn’t bring anything in terms of cap relief. Shipping him out of town would accelerate his $8 million in signing bonuses for 2019 and 2020 onto their 2019 cap, so that $16 million dead money still remains.
A trade would at least allow the franchise to recoup some assets in exchange for a starting-caliber quarterback Baltimore’s going to be paying for in 2019 no matter what. But the Ravens may struggle to find equal value while shopping the Super Bowl XLVII MVP.
Flacco’s trade market is going to be slim
Flacco’s base salary of $18.5 million would still make him an expensive proposition for a struggling team, and his base salaries of $20.25 million and $24.25 million the following two years suggest he’s either going to be a one-year rental or a major candidate for contract restructuring with his new team if he’s acquired via trade. That 2019 salary would mean any team landing him would be paying him to be the league’s 23rd-best quarterback, which is reasonable — but may overvalue what the veteran has brought to the table in recent years.
Flacco has struggled mightily while running a Baltimore offense that’s been devoid of playmakers. He was one of the league’s least efficient quarterbacks in 2017, throwing for a career-low 5.7 yards per pass. The addition of veteran free agent wideouts like Michael Crabtree, Willie Snead, and John Brown helped spark a modest rebound in 2018, but he still ranked 28th among starting quarterbacks with an 84.2 passer rating.
Anyone taking on Flacco will be getting a quarterback far removed from debates about whether or not he’s “elite.” But there were signs of life for the soon-to-be 34-year-old passer in his nine games in 2018. He handled an increased workload respectably, throwing for nearly 274 yards per game while recording a career-low 1.6 percent interception rate. His numbers suggest he could be a higher-ceiling alternative to his former backup Tyrod Taylor, the risk-averse quarterback who dragged the Bills to the playoffs before getting exiled to Cleveland in 2018.
And he’s typically been a reliable presence behind center. 2018 marked only the second time in 11 seasons he failed to start all 16 games of the regular season.
The good news for Flacco and the Ravens is this year’s crop of incoming rookie quarterbacks may not feature any ready-made starters among its ranks, so anyone looking for a plug-and-play passer in 2019 will likely turn to a veteran market instead. Flacco could serve as a short-term starter and a veteran mentor for a young passer, especially after handling Jackson’s promotion to his old job as professionally as possible. The bad news is 2019’s free agent and trade market will be ripe with other veteran QBs approaching career crossroads.
Who would be interested in adding Flacco in 2019?
There will be a modest market of win-now teams in need of a veteran who can also serve as an important backup.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were basically Baltimore Lite in 2018. They had an expensive quarterback lose his starting role and now may be ready to move on to find the signal caller who can do enough to allow a dominant defense to win games. That would create a soft landing spot for Flacco, but cutting Blake Bortles would leave $16.5 million in dead cap money on Jacksonville’s books. Adding the Ravens QB would only be realistic if he were released and then signed to a much less expensive contract in Florida — even if it’s not exactly what the Jags need.
Washington needs a reliable quarterback after Alex Smith suffered a devastating leg injury that has put his career in jeopardy. Given owner Daniel Snyder’s penchant for collecting overpriced, once-great things to disappoint fans in the nation’s capital (see Haynesworth, Albert or Archuleta, Adam or Trotter, Jeremiah or Randle-El, Antwaan, or...), Flacco-to-Washington in a head-scratching trade may be the perfect Snyder move.
The Buccaneers could decide Jameis Winston’s potential isn’t worth the off-field trouble or his inconsistent returns on the field and pair a veteran quarterback to make their yet-to-be-named head coach’s first season in Tampa go a bit more smoothly. The Cardinals could bring Flacco in to fill the role Sam Bradford couldn’t in 2018 and serve as a VIP backup who pushes Josh Rosen for playing time. The Titans could bring him in as a high-value insurance policy for the oft-injured Marcus Mariota. If the Broncos are looking for a fresh start, they could cut Case Keenum and eat his $10 million dead cap hit and see if Flacco can be the stopgap solution to get them back to the postseason.
Flacco will have his options in 2019, though his path back to a clear-cut starting role won’t be a smooth one. There’s a market out there for a former Super Bowl winner, but his best bet may be a one-year deal where he can prove his late-career slump was more a product of Baltimore’s lack of receiving options than any growing deficiency in his game.
Or the Ravens could keep him as a high-leverage backup
If Baltimore keeps Flacco in 2019, his dead cap money falls to $8 million in 2020. With approximately $35.7 million in cap space for the upcoming season even before cutting him, the Ravens could afford to hold on to their longtime quarterback. That would give them a reliable Plan B in case Jackson, a passer who ran the ball an average of 17 times per game in his regular season starts, succumbs to injury.
Holding on to that extra $10.5 million that fills the space between Flacco’s dead money if released and his salary (plus bonus) for 2019 would have repercussions. Baltimore has a handful of priority free agents to retain this spring, starting with middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, who finished the season on a hot streak and earned his fourth Pro Bowl invitation in five NFL seasons. Patrick Onwuasor, who had a big performance in his team’s playoff loss, is another free-agent-to-be linebacker who improved his stock mightily in 2018 by adding a much-needed pass rushing attack to his arsenal. And if Terrell Suggs is going to spend his entire career in purple and black, the Ravens are going to have to pay him, too.
The club could also use the extra cash created by Flacco’s release to chase down some extra playmakers from a free agent crop of receivers and tight ends that includes Randall Cobb, Golden Tate, Adam Humphries, Devin Funchess, Jared Cook, and Tyler Eifert.
Plus, the Ravens may already have a solid backup on their roster who won’t cost anything near $26.5 million in 2019. Robert Griffin III played well enough in the preseason to convince Baltimore to roster him as the team’s third QB throughout 2018. And he earned rave reviews as a mentor who understands Jackson’s transition as a mobile college quarterback to a mobile pro passer.
Sounded like RGIII was an incredible resource and sounding board for Lamar Jackson in the QB room this year. https://t.co/nTnvuh5nM6— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 7, 2019
Given Jackson’s ascension and Flacco’s prohibitive cost, it looks like the veteran quarterback’s reign in Baltimore will end with a 96-67 regular season record, a 10-5 mark in the postseason, and one Super Bowl ring. That’s one hell of a run, especially for a quarterback who always looked like he belonged more in the astroturfed, cookie-cutter NFL stadiums of 1980s rather than the pass-heavy offenses of the 2010s. Flacco can still bring value to a franchise, and it’s possible his recent slump was more a function of Baltimore’s unimpressive offensive roster management than any real loss of skill on his part.
The question now is which NFL team is willing to give him the chance to prove that theory.