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DeMaurice Smith accuses owners of “criminally gaming the game itself” by refusing to do guaranteed contracts

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It’s been obvious ever since the ink dried on Deshaun Watson‘s five-year, fully-guaranteed contract that Lamar Jackson wants one. But for a single stray report from several weeks back that Lamar never asked for such a deal, everything said and done privately and publicly has pointed to Lamar wanting the same structure from the Ravens that Deshaun received from the Browns.

The latest piece of indisputable visual evidence to support this conclusion comes from a powerful and passionate article posted this week by NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. In it, Smith takes aim at owners for using fully-guaranteed contracts as the latest device for exerting control over the player workforce.

“The NFL Draft and the franchise tag system exist because owners have colIuded in the past to both depress and restrict markets,” Smith writes. “This time, they are criminally gaming the game itself.”

Smith’s argument flows from the fact that Lamar Jackson currently is available for discussion, negotiation, and ultimately execution of a fully-guaranteed offer sheet. However, no team has shown any interest in even talking to him.

“We are all staring at the same answer to the obvious questions,” Smith writes. “Why did [Kirk] Cousins and [Deshaun] Watson get fully guaranteed contracts while others didn’t? Or to be more specific, why have the Baltimore Ravens and other teams publicly (at least initially) made such a point to say they are not going to compensate Lamar Jackson with a fully guaranteed contract like Cousins or Watson? Let’s be clear, in my nearly 15-year career as Executive Director, I have never witnessed teams being so quick to publicly announce their lack of interest in an MVP quarterback, who is in his prime and who is also going to get an injury guarantee, regardless of his contract.”

It remains stunning, to say the least, that so many teams emerged as reportedly being not interested in Lamar Jackson in the hours after the Ravens officially applied the non-exclusive franchise tag. Even if it was the product of reporters being persistent and aggressive, the parade of “NOPE” created the distinct impression of coordination — especially when the simplest and smartest answer from the teams would have been, “We’re keeping all options open.”

And as previously said on PFT Live and other radio programs and likely written here (it’s been a long week; I can’t remember for sure), the seeds of collusion were planted a year ago, with the league-wide reaction to the Watson contract. This time around, teams know not to flutter too close to the fully-guaranteed flame. They’ll never have to say no to a fully-guaranteed contract if they never engage Lamar in discussions as to what he wants.

Smith believes that the league is taking an even stronger stand as to Lamar Jackson in order to prevent other quarterbacks who will be getting new deals soon (e.g., Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts) from getting fully-guaranteed contracts, too.

“The NFL wants to send a message to all of the above-named stars that they will not get a fully guaranteed contract, simply because other first-ballot Hall of Famers didn’t get them and — if they can help it — because Jackson didn’t get one, either,” Smith writes. “The message for the non-quarterback free agent market is equally harsh: You don’t stand a chance of getting this type of contract.”

The broader point, Smith believes, is about power.

“The message is clear from the league,” Smith writes “WE will control you. The unions and players have fought this for years, and it will undoubtedly continue.”

It will continue for as long as the players let it continue. For as long as they continue to show up for voluntary workouts. For as long as they continue to give the NFL and its teams free publicity and promotion on their own personal platforms.

For as long as the players won’t collectively take a stand and push back against those who control the sport, ultimately in the form of enduring a lockout or staging a strike long enough to miss regular-season games.

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