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Eisenberg: Threading the Needle Between Win Now and the Future

QB Lamar Jackson
QB Lamar Jackson

What is the Ravens' single biggest challenge of the offseason?

The general consensus is it's one of several much-discussed issues such as improving the passing game, upgrading the offensive line or restocking the pass rush if it suffers key departures.

Depends on your point of view. And those are all important matters, no doubt.

But they're single-position issues. The Ravens' biggest challenge of the coming months is more global, if you will – a big-picture predicament.

Two conflicting forces are tugging at them as they build their 2021 team. One force is the urge to win now. The other force is the need to stay disciplined and not mortgage the future.

Somehow, the front office needs to thread the needle and satisfy both of those conflicting forces. It's easier said than done.

Trying to win now is an obvious mandate for them. After being stuck in a cycle of mediocrity between 2013 and 2017, the Ravens have made three straight playoff appearances and been among the final eight in the last two Super Bowl tournaments. They're close enough to their goal to believe a few changes might make the difference.

And their sense of urgency is even greater, or should be, because their quarterback, Lamar Jackson, is due for a new contract at some point in the next couple years. His price point remains a question, but with a 30-7 regular season record as a starter and a league MVP award to his credit, he'll surely command the largest contract in franchise history.

Maybe I'm overstating it, but before and after you pay your franchise quarterback are two very different realities for an organization.

When your star quarterback is on the contract he signed as a rookie, as Jackson still is, it's easier to do more with the rest of the roster. But addressing other issues becomes trickier once the quarterback is eating up more of the salary cap with a new deal.

Numerous teams know all about this situation, including the Ravens. (See: contract, Flacco, Joe.) You can still get where you want to go after you start paying your quarterback, but the degree-of-difficulty becomes higher.

It means the Ravens are still in a best-case-scenario situation now and possibly for a few more years, depending on how Jackson's contract is structured … but the clock is ticking.

With that in mind, it's temping to yield to all temptations and try to win now, before things get trickier. Add a top-tier wide receiver and a cornerstone offensive lineman in free agency? Sure, anything else? It certainly would improve the team and the Ravens probably could pull it off if they shifted a ton of current salary-cap obligations to a pay-later credit card. There are ways to get that done.

But there's a major problem with taking that approach. As in real life, you eventually have to pay off that credit card bill.

In the NFL, that weight tends to pull you down and out of playoff contention for a few years.

Ravens General Manager Eric DeCosta has said he wants to maintain a cap structure that enables the team to compete every year, not in bursts. Putting a free agent shopping spree on a credit card is pretty much the polar opposite of that philosophy.

I can't see the Ravens doing it. That's just not who they are. Yet I certainly see them making moves, some significant, to improve their chances in 2021. They do have the cap room.

The solution, it would seem, is to identify moves that make sense both now and in the long run. I can think of a couple right away. Adding a high-end offensive lineman in free agency certainly makes sense for a team that depends so much on its running game. Re-signing outside linebacker Tyus Bowser is an affordable way to add continuity and stability to a position seemingly in flux.

Whatever they do, it's part of the Ravens' plan for threading this finest of needles and addressing both of the conflicting forces tugging at them in 2021.

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