Why MVP Lamar Jackson is at his most valuable for Ravens in 2020

Jackson, McCaffrey among players who leapt to superstardom (1:10)

John Fox, Damien Woody and Field Yates pick the players, including Lamar Jackson and Christian McCaffrey, they feel made the leap to superstardom in 2019. (1:10)

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Lamar Jackson became the first Baltimore Raven to be named NFL Most Valuable Player on Saturday, but he will never be more fiscally valuable to the franchise than next season.

In 2020, Jackson’s salary-cap hit of $2.58 million currently ranks 31st among NFL passers. Why is that relevant? It pays to have a great but cheaper quarterback in the NFL, a trend that was underscored by Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller Patrick Mahomes’ triumph in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Including Mahomes, eight of the past 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have ranked outside the top 10 in quarterback cap hit, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Over the past decade, there have been more Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks outside the top 20 (three) than inside the top 10 (two).

Young and dynamic quarterbacks such as Mahomes, Jackson and Deshaun Watson have ushered in a new era with their ability to beat teams with their elusiveness as well as their big arms. Their below-market salaries can make a significant impact too.

By not having to devote 10% to 15% of the cap to a quarterback, teams can allocate more resources to improve the rest of the team. The Seattle Seahawks certainly did that to capture the Super Bowl title in 2013 with Russell Wilson (54th in QB cap hit), and the Chiefs did the same this season with Mahomes (31st). This past offseason, Kansas City probably couldn’t have traded for pass-rusher Frank Clark, who harassed Jimmy Garoppolo throughout the second half of the Super Bowl, and signed him to a $104 million contract if Mahomes was on a megadeal.

It is a competitive advantage when a quarterback such as Jackson counts less than $3 million against the Ravens’ cap -- while Jared Goff eats up a league-high $36 million of the Los Angeles Rams’ cap after signing an extension in the offseason. In another comparison, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the chief rival to Baltimore in the AFC North, are taking a $33.5 million hit with Ben Roethlisberger.

This puts an increased pressure on teams to win when their franchise quarterback is still on his rookie deal, and the Ravens know that from experience. Baltimore won the Super Bowl with Joe Flacco following the 2012 season, when he had the 18th-highest cap hit among quarterbacks. The Ravens won only one playoff game after making Flacco the highest-paid player in NFL history in 2013, and Baltimore failed to win a postseason game during the three years when Flacco ranked in the top five in cap hits (2016 to 2018). Of course, it helps when the quarterback lives up to the expectations of a top-tier contract.

Even though Jackson is entering his third season, this is the first offseason in which the Ravens are paying Jackson a rookie salary and Flacco is no longer on the books. Flacco represented the biggest cap hit for Baltimore in 2019 with his $16 million in dead money, even though he playing for the Denver Broncos.

But no one should expect Baltimore to go on a shopping spree in free agency. The Ravens likely will remain selective when shopping in the open market in Eric DeCosta’s second offseason as general manager. Over the past seven years, Baltimore has given over $10 million in guaranteed money to five free agents from other teams: pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil (2013); safeties Eric Weddle (2016), Tony Jefferson (2017) and Earl Thomas III (2019); and wide receiver Michael Crabtree (2018). If Baltimore opens its wallet this offseason, it presumably will be for a pass-rusher, guard (if Marshal Yanda retires) and wide receiver.

Baltimore is projected to have around $30 million in cap space, which is more than what the Ravens have had in recent memory but still ranks in the bottom half of the league. The Ravens spent a sizable piece of their 2020 cap space on extensions for seven of their own players who were set to become free agents this offseason, including four Pro Bowl players: Yanda; cornerback Marcus Peters; place-kicker Justin Tucker; and fullback Patrick Ricard.

DeCosta, who made it clear he wanted the Ravens to become more aggressive in keeping their young talent from hitting free agency, did a chunk of this offseason’s work before the 2019 was over. Baltimore is returning every starter from the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and at least eight starters from the league’s No. 4 defense because the franchise doesn’t have to pay Jackson at an MVP-type level yet.

When will the Ravens have to give Jackson a big-money deal? He is signed through the next two seasons (his base salary is $1.3 million in 2020 and $1.7 million in 2021), and Baltimore can exercise a fifth-year option for 2022.

It bears watching how Kansas City handles Mahomes. Chiefs co-owner Clark Hunt said the right time for a Mahomes extension is sometime over the next 12 to 15 months. Once Mahomes sets the market -- perhaps at $40 million per season -- Jackson likely will want to top that. Jackson will surely want a big deal sooner rather than later, given the risk of injury.

The Ravens certainly will be happy to reward Jackson if he continues to break long runs and throw touchdown passes at a league-leading rate. But once Jackson’s salary and bonus money increase, so does the challenge of surrounding him with a strong support cast.