Eisenberg: Young Lamar Jackson Holds the Ravens’ Keys

You don’t need a calculator to compute how long Lamar Jackson has been with the Ravens.

Let’s see, they selected him just under a year ago, on the last Thursday in April, in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. That means he has worn the purple for (counting with my fingers) slightly less than 51 weeks.

Not long.

Jackson just got here, basically. His career thus far amounts to an eye-blink.

But for such a young short-timer, all of 22 years old, he certainly is shouldering a heavy load of importance and responsibility.

The Ravens are already depending on him. Counting on him. Expecting him to be the face of the franchise and lead them wherever their journey takes them in the coming years.

Talk about a rapid ascent.

A year ago, as the 2018 draft approached, Jackson was a unique talent whose worthiness as an NFL prospect was the subject of quite a debate among scouts and pundits. His most recent appearance on a football field had been as the Louisville Cardinals’ quarterback in, wait for it, the Tax Slayer Bowl.

Less than a year later, when the Ravens opened their offseason program Monday at the Under Armour Performance Center, Jackson wasn’t literally carrying the keys to the franchise as he arrived. But figuratively, yes, those keys were in his possession.

That has become easy to forget in recent months with the Ravens’ news cycle so dominated by a transition at general manager from Ozzie Newsome to Eric DeCosta; the eye-opening departures of veteran leaders Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, C.J. Mosley and Joe Flacco; the signings of big-ticket free agents Earl Thomas and Mark Ingram; and other roster machinations.

Jackson has been largely out of sight and thus somewhat out of mind since his rookie season concluded with a thud as the Ravens exited the playoffs with a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. He spent the rest of the winter and early spring honing his skills in private workouts in South Florida.

But don’t let his temporary and relatively low profile fool you. (With a million followers on Instagram, Jackson’s profile is never that low.)

The Ravens’ prospects for a strong 2019 are directly tied to whatever progress Jackson made in those sessions in Florida as well as the many hours of workouts, Organized Team Activity practices, minicamps and other developmental opportunities that lie ahead.

Are his passing mechanics improved? Can he become more consistently accurate with his throws? Can he get a better grip on ball security, pun intended?

Lamar-centric questions such as those will impact the Ravens more than any other questions. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. put it succinctly when my colleague Ryan Mink asked him to assess the Ravens’ big picture on “The Lounge” podcast last week.

“The bottom line is, Ozzie’s last first-round pick is going to be the key to the next three four, five years – Lamar Jackson,” Kiper said.

It isn’t unusual for a team to make a young quarterback so central to its future; that is supposed to happen soon after a quarterback arrives via a first-round pick.

And to be clear, the pressure of carrying a heavy load doesn’t faze Jackson in the least. It’s all he’s ever known in football.

But the Ravens are doing more than just asking a lot of him. They’re rebuilding their offense “from the ground up” strictly because of him, seeking to tailor the unit to his talents with a new blueprint and huddle-mates who can help maximize his effectiveness.

They’re also endeavoring to surround him with enough quality playmakers that the pressure to produce isn’t solely on him. The Chargers got away with focusing on him and daring the rest of the offense to beat them in the playoffs. The Ravens don’t want opponents reprising that gamble.

No matter who lines up with him, though, Jackson will still have more to do with the arc of the Ravens’ season than any other player. It’s not even close.

Yes, he’s a relative newcomer and the franchise’s evolutionary wheels have spun dizzyingly fast, but Jackson’s place at the center of all things Ravens is secure.

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