There’s a lot of smoke surrounding Lamar Jackson and the Patriots, but is there any actual fire?
Speculation about Jackson potentially joining New England was bubbling beneath the NFL rumor surface, but it full-on erupted Tuesday afternoon when Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke to reporters in Phoenix. Kraft said that rapper Meek Mill recently told him that Jackson wants to play for the Patriots, and now we seemingly have a real situation on our hands.
What’s the deal? First of all, it’s important to note where things stand with Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, who insist they want to keep the 2019 NFL MVP.
Jackson, who isn’t working through an agent and wants a new long-term deal, recently was assigned the non-exclusive franchise tag. This enables the 26-year-old to negotiate with other NFL teams ahead of the July deadline for signing the one-year franchise tag contract. If a team makes Jackson an offer, the Ravens have the opportunity to match it. If Baltimore declines, the franchise signing Jackson must give Baltimore two first-round picks. The Ravens also could negotiate a sign-and-trade if they decide to move on from Jackson — who said he requested a trade — while believing that no teams will part with the two draft picks.
Now, back to the Patriots.
As of early Tuesday afternoon, there weren’t any legitimate reports indicating that New England was interested in pursuing Jackson. The most we had to go on was what Meek Mill apparently told Kraft. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways for us to connect the dots.
Here are the four most important soundbites to keep in mind when discussing the Lamar Jackson-Patriots rumors:
Dan Graziano’s comments
Earlier this month, former Patriots defender Rob Ninkovich implored New England to pursue Jackson during a segment on ESPN’s “Get Up!” show. “If you’re the Patriots, and you go and you make an attempt to get Lamar, that changes everything — absolutely everything,” Ninkovich said.
That in and of itself was interesting, but it was the ensuing back-and-forth between host Mike Greenberg and NFL insider Dan Graziano that really got us thinking.
“To be clear, we haven’t heard any rumblings about New England being involved in this,” Greenberg said. “And they did just take Mac Jones.”
Graziano, tilting his head in that not-so-fast kinda way, then interrupted him, saying, “No, I would not rule that out.”
It still is difficult to get a read on what Graziano meant. On one hand, he simply could’ve been agreeing with Ninkovich. On the other hand, established league insiders rarely say something like that unless there’s something behind it.
In any case, Graziano, in multiple Tuesday morning ESPN appearances, reported that teams still hadn’t actively engaged with Jackson and/or the Ravens.
Bill Belichick’s remarks on Mac Jones
You really could break this up into, like, seven soundbites, as Belichick has been noncommittal whenever talking about Jones since “Zappe Fever” hit New England last October.
The Patriots head coach continued that trend Monday morning when speaking to reporters at the 2023 NFL Owners Meetings. Belichick was asked whether Jones will enter training camp as the presumed starting quarterback or engage in a QB competition with sophomore Bailey Zappe.
“Everybody will get a chance to play, and we’ll play the best players,” Belichick told reporters. “… Everybody will get a chance to play. Everybody that’s on our roster, if they earn the opportunity to play based on what they do in practice and all that, then they’ll get an opportunity to play. Certainly, veteran players that have been on the team before, if they’re still on the team, they’ll all get an opportunity to play.”
Was that Belichick opening the door for Jones to lose his job? Maybe. Was it Belichick simply reiterating that nobody is guaranteed anything in New England? Also maybe. It also might’ve been a combination of the two.
Belichick’s refusal to publicly back Jones as the Patriots’ franchise quarterback is the primary reason why this kind of speculation exists in the first place.
Kraft’s comments two hours later
The Patriots owner has been near-unwavering in his support of Jones. Despite many Patriots fans wanting the franchise to move on from its 2021 first-round pick, Kraft has insisted that Jones is franchise-quarterback material.
But some cracks appeared to form Tuesday afternoon when Kraft spoke to reporters in Phoenix.
“I’m a big fan of Mac,” Kraft said. “He came to us as a rookie, he quarterbacked his rookie season and did a very fine job, I thought. We made the playoffs. I think we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn’t work when it came to him, in my opinion, and I think we made changes (this offseason) that I think put him in a good position to excel.”
Nothing major, right? We thought so, too, until Kraft said this:
“Look, in the end, Bill is in charge of my football team. He makes the decisions of who should start and who should play, and he’s done a pretty darn good job of it for the last, when you think about it, 24 years. I had peach fuzz when that started. But I don’t know. To me, I see (Jones) as a very hard-working young man. He’s in the stadium almost every day now in the offseason. I think bringing in Bill O’Brien will work to his advantage, and I’m very positive and hopeful about this upcoming year.”
You don’t have to wear a tin-foil hat to interpret those remarks as Kraft giving Belichick the freedom to either stick with Jones or make a change.
The Meek Mill thing
Speaking of deferring to Belichick, Kraft said something similar when asked about Jackson a few minutes after his initial press meeting.
“Robert Kraft says Meek Mill texted him 3-4 days ago that Lamar Jackson wants to be a Patriot,” The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin tweeted. “Kraft said ‘That’s Bill’s decision.'”
But that’s not even the most interesting part. According to other reporters who were present, Kraft specified that he was fine with his comments being on the record.
“It makes me wonder, why does he want that out there?” Tom E. Curran said Monday in an NBC Sports Boston appearance.
Kraft might’ve been doing nothing more than reminding people that he’s friends with Meek Mill. But he also might’ve been communicating a willingness to make a franchise-altering acquisition of Jackson.
So, that’s where we’re at. We simultaneously have very little to go and a ton to go on, depending on how much weight you put on Kraft’s remarks.
If there’s one thing we feel confident in saying, it’s that this storyline is just getting started.