Eisenberg: A Lot on the Line This Season

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Let me start by making it clear that I'm NOT saying it's "Super Bowl or bust" for the Ravens in 2021.

Nope, I'm not going there. It's just unfair to set the bar that high.

I'm also NOT saying they'd better win soon because their window of opportunity could be closing.

Nope. I'm not buying that (see below), and in any case, the NFL is too unpredictable for such sweeping predictions. In my experience, those are usually mistakes waiting to happen.

So, to be clear, there are limits to what I AM saying with my opinion that a lot is on the line for the Ravens this season.

But that's my basic premise. The Ravens are a winning team looking to win more, never an easy step to take. There are reasons why taking that step sooner rather than later might be a good idea.

They're still in the enviable position of having their star quarterback playing on his rookie contract. I believe it's only a matter of when, not if, Lamar Jackson agrees to a new deal, but no matter the timing, he's a bargain for at least one more season and possibly two.

Once he signs the largest contract in Ravens history, building a team around him becomes that much more challenging.

At this point, continuity is quite attainable. The Ravens brought back 14 of their top 15 players from the 2020 defense in terms of snap-count percentage – the guys who played the most, in other words. A majority of the offense also is back, including an expanding set of young skill-position contributors.

The longer the Ravens keep the band together, the better their chances of winning. And for now, with occasional exceptions, they have enough salary cap flexibility to choose who they go forward with. But their choices will become more plentiful and tougher in a few years.

One of their enduring goals is to field a contender consistently, which means paying heed to the future while you orchestrate the present. Not easy. The Ravens are good at the juggle. Three straight playoff appearances reflect the desired consistency. Their abundance of young talent bodes well for the future.

Yet there are places where, no doubt, they're built to win now, period. Their starting defensive line consists of Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe – ages 34, 32 and 31, respectively. A reconstruction of the offensive line hinges on tackle Alejandro Villanueva, 32, and guard Kevin Zeitler, 30.

The Ravens are working on their NextGen units in those places. Justin Madubuike, a second-year D-lineman, could be a future cornerstone. The signing of injured offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James was intended to lessen the uncertainty of what lies ahead for that unit.

Nonetheless, those ages listed above inevitably raise the possibility of wholesale transition, which the Ravens are trying not to deal with in 2021.

Another circumstance that favors this season is the prospect of organic offensive growth. There's room for it after the Ravens ranked No. 32 in passing yardage in 2020.

Their run-oriented attack blindsided the league and led to the best regular season in franchise history in 2019. The rest of the league caught up to some degree in 2020, although the Ravens still made the playoffs and led the league in rushing by a wide margin.

Now, team officials acknowledge it's time to ramp up the passing game and balance out the offense. They've put a lot into the idea of becoming more explosive in more ways, and in the end, harder to predict and/or defend in 2021.

Whatever they do, it won't be so new and surprising by 2022.

Suggesting it all makes for a win-or-else scenario in 2021 is pure hyperbole. I can guarantee you there'll still be plenty of reasons to like the Ravens' chances heading into 2022, regardless of what happens this season. ESPN recently ranked them No. 3 on a list of teams built to win at some point in the next three years.

But with several variables working for them this year, 2021 shapes up as an especially opportune time to get the job done.

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