Navigating NFL without an agent remains tricky proposition
Lamar Jackson was still wearing his uniform when he walked into his postgame news conference minutes after the Baltimore Ravens earned a season-opening win over the New York Jets on Sunday.
He was coming off a three-touchdown game that had provided the bulk of Baltimore’s points during its 24-9 victory.
But those weren’t the only numbers he was asked about.
It didn’t take long for Jackson’s contract to become a topic, with questions about whether it was true he had turned down a $250 million contract extension offer from the Ravens.
“Fully guaranteed? No, there’s no truth to that,” Jackson said with a smile before his barely two-minute-old news conference was abruptly ended by the Ravens’ public relations staff.
Welcome to NFL life negotiating without an agent, a risk vs. reward proposition that requires a balancing act few remain willing to take on.
In a league with more than 2,000 players, Jackson is one of only 17 currently acting as their own agent, according to the NFLPA. The list includes high-profile names such as Bobby Wagner, DeAndre Hopkins and Jacoby Brissett.
Former Super Bowl champions Richard Sherman, Russell Okung and Hall of Famer Edgerrin James have also done it in the past.
Yet, none of them has ever had the money at stake Jackson does this season once the 2018 first-round pick chose to play out the final year of his rookie contract after being unable to reach an extension. The 2019 NFL MVP is believed to be seeking a deal comparable to the $230 million fully guaranteed contract Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson received in March.
The idea of wading into the waters of self-representation with that kind of money in the balance is an unthinkable proposition to many in the industry, who believe players who operate without agents are hurt by not having a dedicated, full-time advocate negotiating on their behalf.
“I can think only in very rare situations is an athlete well equipped to handle second, third, fourth contracts on his own,” said Darren Heitner, a sports law professor at the University of Florida and former agent.
“Certainly we’ve seen athletes be successful in doing so for their rookie deals because at this point in time it’s slotted money and there’s very few terms in the contracts left to be negotiated.”
That played into Jackson’s decision not to hire an agent coming out of the University of Louisville and he continues to take it on, guided only with a small group of advisers that includes his mother, Felicia Jones.
“I’m comfortable, but it’s probably different because it’s your quarterback, and not an NFL agent, stuff like that,” Jackson said of how his negotiations have gone thus far. “It’s been pretty cool, (executive vice president and general manager) Eric (DeCosta) has been pretty cool with it.”
Opinions among some of the players who have plodded the path Jackson is on have had varied experiences.
That’s because more than simply saving money, choosing to play this chess game alone requires a player being willing to carve out the extra time off the field.
That’s a lesson Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle D.J. Humphries learned when he negotiated an extension this offseason that will pay him more than $30 million in guaranteed money over the next three years.
He is on a list of 13 active players who didn’t use an agent in their current deals, but have employed one in the past.
“Tough. I probably wouldn’t do it again,” Humphries said. “It was something I wanted to do. When I’m done (playing football), I want to be a businessman, so being able to do one of the biggest deals on my own for the first time, that was huge for me.”
Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner intimated that not having an agent in his negotiations with the Seattle may have played a role in the Seahawks not even calling him directly to inform him he was being released in March after 10 seasons.
“I don’t think me representing myself played any part on my end. It was more on their end,” Wagner said.
“Maybe they didn’t want to do it. Maybe they want to kind of burn that bridge. But I feel like through this process and the last process, I’ve shown the capability of handling tough conversations we’ve had, tough conversations throughout my tenure there.”
An overhaul of the rookie compensation system in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement put an end to the previous framework in which savvy agents regularly got their clients exuberant initial contracts featuring huge signing bonuses.
It also led to more players to opt to save the 1 to 3% commission traditionally paid to agents and instead employ lawyers to vet contract terms once a deal is reached.
That certainly was the mindset of Buffalo rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam when he followed the advice of his father and former NFL player Abram Elam and didn’t hire an agent after being drafted by the Bills.
“We have a team around him that will help equip him to maneuver through this space,” Abram Elam said.
“We’re educating him to be a boss. Take control of your career and understand everything. We see a lot of these guys, they rely on so many other people to do so many other things for themselves, but you need to own your own business and you are your own CEO, so that’s how we’re treating this situation.”
Still, there are those such as Heitner, who believe the intricacies of securing the kind of payday Jackson now seeks requires much more experience.
That’s the value agents add at Jackson’s level of negotiation, he said, where understanding the landscape and having the time, access, resources and deep relationships with team executives means everything.
There’s also another component.
“A lot of athletes, whether they admit it or not, are somewhat fragile,” Heitner said. “It’s not a great thing to hear all the negative things about you from the team that employs you and that wants you to succeed by thrusting yourself into a situation where you’re your own agent. It’s a requirement. You’re going to hear from the other side why you’re not valued at a certain level. And I think that’s sometimes a very tough pill to swallow.”
As for Jackson, he’s content to bet on himself and stick to what got him to this point. For now that continues to be not using an agent or getting any advice from any other players who have done so.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I’m a different player than any of the other players who represented themselves.”
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham, David Brandt, Steve Megargee, Noah Trister and John Wawrow contributed to this report.
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