It's now or never for Lamar Jackson.
It may sound drastic, especially considering the reigning unanimous MVP doesn't turn 24 until this week and clearly has a long career ahead of him. But according to NBC Sports' Michael Smith, the competition around Jackson is only getting stiffer.
"Take a minute and look at the landscape of quarterbacks in the AFC compared to the NFC," Smith said on Tuesday's Brother From Another show. "There’s pressure [on Lamar Jackson] not just because of what people are going to say, but your opportunities to get to the playoffs, in a conference that is very soon going to include Trevor Lawrence and maybe even Justin Fields, or Zach Wilson, depending on what the Jets do, the Patriots are going to get somebody serviceable...there’s a [NBA] Western Conference vibe to the AFC. So your opportunities to break through aren’t guaranteed."
It's certainly a wild group of quarterbacks already in the conference and poised to join soon. The AFC already includes the consensus best player in football in Mahomes, the reigning MVP in Jackson, a top-three 2020 MVP candidate in Josh Allen, the all-time rookie passing TD record holder in Justin Herbert, and the NFL's passing leader in 2020 in Deshaun Watson. And that barely scratches the surface.
Not to mention the glut of talent set to enter the conference. The 2021 NFL Draft has two of the most highly-anticipated quarterback prospects in recent memory, including Lawrence, who might be the greatest QB prospect ever, according to many evaluators.
And in this historic draft class, the AFC has four teams drafting in the top five, with the top two both in need of adding a new signal-caller. So it seems all but certain that the stacked -- and young -- AFC is about to add two blue-chip talents to its list.
"And Justin Herbert, how about Joe Burrow rehabbing," Smith continued. "It’s Mahomes, it’s Allen, it’s Jackson, it’s [Ryan] Tannehill, it’s Baker [Mayfield], it’s Tua [Tagovailoa], if you’re a believer in Tua. It’s Herbert, it’s Burrow, it’s Watson, it’s going to be Trevor Lawrence, and maybe Justin Fields. There are so many teams with enviable QB positions, and that’s just the AFC."
It's poised to be one of the most talented, interesting conferences in terms of quarterbacks, maybe in the history of the NFL. Smith just referenced 11 of the conference's 15 teams, all of whom have tantalizing quarterbacks. And the other four aren't employing nobodies at the position -- Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger are older, but are accomplished, future Hall of Famers still. And Denver's Drew Lock has plenty of arm and receiving talent to take a step next season. The Raiders' Derek Carr looks like the only "boring" QB in the entire conference, and he's coming off one of the best seasons of his career.
It all adds up to a tough slate for any quarterback, including Lamar Jackson. And as he continues to grow as a quarterback, the pressure to win in the playoffs is only going to get stronger. Unfortunately for Jackson and the Ravens, the longer they wait for their January breakthrough, the tougher their path is going to get.