Over the last 17 years, the Baltimore Ravens have been known for certain organizational strengths. Drafting, defense, and trash talking; just to name a few.
But, there is one thing the Ravens have been much better at than every other team in the entire NFL. Finding Centers, usually of the highest quality, at will.
It all started with Wally Williams.
Williams, a current Ravens analyst for the local CBS affiliate, came to the Browns organization in 1993 as an undrafted free agent. The mauling, physical Center eventually left the Ravens in 1998 as one of the game’s best.
While Wally Williams made his exit to New Orleans, Mike Flynn took the reins as starting Center. Flynn went on to be a stalwart on the Ravens offensive line for 8 years, even playing Right Guard for the Super Bowl XXXV team.
Flynn’s departure opened the door for the Ravens Right Guard, Jason Brown, to move over and play his more natural Center position. After the 2008 season, Brown parlayed his outstanding into a $37.5 million dollar contract from the Rams. And, of course, to fill that void the Ravens signed an aging Matt Birk.
Now, its 2013 and were presumably about to go into the season with Gino Gradkowski starting at Center. And, we’ve never had a Center in the exact mold of Gradkowski in Baltimore before. No, he is not an otherworldly talent, but his style of play is much more modernized than past Ravens Centers.
Gradkowski isn’t the 320-pound behemoth Jason Brown was, and he’ll probably never even get near that kind of weight. That’s not his game, nor should it be.
Where the Delaware product shines is in his first-step quickness, his positioning, his balance, and his smarts. These are the things NFL coaches value with zone blocking becoming increasingly popular. And, this holds true for the Ravens especially.
Here we have an end zone look of a play during the week 17 matchup against the Bengals where Gradkowski got the start. The Ravens are aligned in an “11 personnel” set out of shotgun, forcing the defense to play in their nickel package. Domata Peko is lined up over the left shoulder of Gradkowski meaning he is a 1-technique Defensive Tackle.
As soon as Gradkowski snaps the ball, he shows his impressive quickness while firing off the line of scrimmage to engage Peko. Here, Gradkowski keeps a wide base and does a good job positioning himself for the ensuing seal-off of the defensive tackle.
As Tyrod Taylor reads the weak-side Defensive End, it becomes clear that this is a zone-read run, making Gradkowski’s initial “get off” even more important. Since Tyrod correctly hands the ball to Bernard Pierce, Gradkowski’s job of sealing off Peko becomes paramount.
Gradkowski, a natural knee-bender, has no issue getting lower than Peko who gets stood-up completely within two seconds of the ball being snapped. Clearly this is a win early on in the play for Gradkowski.
But can he anchor?
After Gradkowski puts himself in a position to gain leverage, he drops his weight, anchors Peko and opens a giant hole in the A-gap. The result is a complete and dominant block.
Here is the full video of the play:
Now, I’d like to write an entire article on why Gino Gradkowski is going to be the greatest Center ever. But, I can’t. He does have some weaknesses, but none too costly.
While Gradkowski is a perfect fit for what the Ravens want to do, he does lack the strength to block lineman one-on-one consistently. Yes, the Ravens might be able let their Guards have a clean release to Linebackers occasionally, but Gradkowski is going to need help a lot. This may hurt the Ravens offense strategically, but Gradkowski makes up for it in other areas of his game.
No player is perfect, but a player can be a perfect fit for a certain team.
And despite some physical deficiencies, that’s exactly what Gino Gradkowski is.