By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — These days, it’s not at all difficult to generate some headlines. All it takes is one quote, one simple statement, and every media outlet rushes to run the same quote. That’s especially true in the world of sports.
Every athlete knows this, and Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey is obviously no exception. When he opens his mouth and lets his thoughts flow freely — whether it be to GQ or to ESPN The Magazine — the young man knows exactly what he’s doing.
He is, of course, ticking off a lot of fans. By insulting various players around the NFL, he’s insuring that fans will take note of his presence when he walks into their stadiums or appears on their televisions this year. The latter scenario will absolutely be true here in New England, after Ramsey said that Rob Gronkowski is not “as great as people think he is.”
It’s provocative, to be sure, but that is exactly the point. While much of the sports world gets caught up in the reaction to Ramsey’s comments, it’s easy to see what the 23-year-old is doing.
Jalen Ramsey is simply building up the empire of Jalen Ramsey.
The fact is, players in this league have a very finite window to maximize their earning potential as players and as people. And even though the Jaguars’ defense was outstanding last season (ranking second in the NFL in seemingly every important defensive category), playing on the Jacksonville defense has not historically been the most exceptional way for someone to gain fame.
Last year, Ramsey was plenty good enough on the field to be considered a top cornerback in the NFL. Maybe even the best. (Fighting tooth-and-nail over who’s No. 1 or No. 3 at a position like cornerback is a fool’s endeavor.) And he’s only two years into his professional playing career.
Some critics who find Ramsey’s words to be off-putting might say that he’s too young, that he hasn’t yet accomplished enough in the league to rattle off such inflammatory comments with no inhibition. But, well, that’s exactly the point. With career lengths being what they are, and with contract situations being what they are, an NFL player doesn’t have the luxury to wait until he’s a long-established star to begin acting like one.
Even as a top-five pick, Ramsey is obviously underpaid in relation to the services he provides his team. So when his rookie deal expires following the 2019 season, he’ll want to make every last dollar he can. In a league like the NFL, you never can be certain that a deal you sign won’t be your last.
And while performance on the field is most important among front office evaluators, there’s something to be said about generating excitement, creating a buzz, and other such cliches that may seem illogical but nevertheless have been employed by many GMs over the years. (Most have been fired.) You can also tack on the elements of “changing a locker room culture” by bringing in a player with the supreme confidence of a player like Ramsey.
We saw all of this play not long ago with one Mr. Richard Sherman. A fifth-round pick in 2011 who joined a mediocre Seahawks team was known among football die-hards, but he was nowhere close to being a first-round pick. But then he showed he can play at an elite level. Then he started talking. He famously issued some trash talk against Tom Brady following a Patriots loss in Seattle, officially inviting everyone in the New England region to learn his name. They never forgot it.
That was in 2012. From there, Sherman’s star rose rapidly. He and the Legion Of Boom — a nickname that the players asked for and then amplified countless times, in the name of building a “brand” so to speak — won a Super Bowl the following year by absolutely killing Peyton Manning. By the time Sherman and the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl against the Patriots a year later, he was a bona fide superstar.
Now? Now Sherman is 30, a cursed age that makes many NFL personnel men shudder in fear. He’s coming off Achilles surgery — multiple Achilles surgeries, actually — and just signed a contract that only guaranteed him $7 million. Even if he earns all the money written into his deal, it maxes out at about $9 million per year. He has the 28th-highest cap hit among NFL cornerbacks in 2018.
According to Spotrac, Sherman ranks 11th among active cornerbacks in career earnings with $48 million. He ranks behind the likes of Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, Leon Hall, Brandon Carr, Johnathan Joseph and Joe Haden. At various times from 2012 to, say, 2016, he could’ve properly claimed to have been better than all of them.
But going back to 2014, when Sherman signed a new deal, he was given a record-setting deal, one that made him the highest-paid cornerback in the league. He earned it with his pay, for sure. But it also didn’t hurt that he built up his own level of fame by opening his mouth and sharing whatever was in his head at every given opportunity.
Ramsey is no doubt aware of all of this — aware of how much Sherman helped himself financially by making himself a bigger star, and aware of how briefly Sherman had the chance to lay claim to being the best cornerback in the NFL. It’s all a part of reality for NFL players.
So, while you may not like it when Ramsey speaks out and calls your favorite player a bum, or trash, or whatever colorful language he decides to employ, or when he boldly declares that he’s going to the Super Bowl, or when he says he likes to let his mouthpiece hang out of his helmet because it’s “swaggy,” or when he stars in a mini-documentary after just two NFL seasons … well, you do have to understand that such activity is generally not just the output of a player who’s not capable of keeping his thoughts to himself. (Plus, what is there to even complain about? This is free entertainment.)
It’s generally a somewhat calculated ploy, capable of being employed only by a special type of player who’s both supremely talented and even more confident. And it’s generally one that ends up paying off for the player.