The Baltimore Ravens picked a good year to be in dire need of a center.
The “Post-Matt Birk Experience” didn’t go as planned in 2013, and Gino Gradkowski’s disappointing sophomore season as starting center may have been his last.
Gradkowski beat out eventual left guard A.Q. Shipley for the starting job in training camp, but ideally, neither figure to enter 2014 with a solidified roster spot, let alone a starting job. Ryan Jensen, a rookie in 2013, is also stashed away on the roster, but he has yet to touch the field as a Raven, so it’s unknown if he has starter potential or not.
All three figure to have plenty of competition when 2014 training camp rolls around, as upgrading the center position is one of the priorities this offseason.
Although the Ravens traditionally don’t turn to the free agent market to make serious upgrades, the class of free agent centers is deep, talented and veteran-laden – just what Baltimore needs.
The star of the group is Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack, who (likely) won’t be a Baltimore target given the presumed large contract coming his way.
The Ravens aren’t short of viable options, however.
Here’s a look at the most ideal options for Baltimore in free agency.
What Baltimore needs is a veteran nearing the end of his career, but one who can still play at a high level (like Matt Birk was in 2009, for instance).
That allows Baltimore to find a solution for at least 2014 and possibly longer, without having to break the bank.
Dominic Raiola fits that description.
The 2013 season was a career year for Raiola, and he helped lead the Detroit Lions offensive line as its anchor and excelled all season. Strength is Raiola’s game – the opposite of Gradkowski.
In order to improve the protection for Joe Flacco, adding a sure-thing, strong center would be a great start.
Raiola’s strength was on display against the Ravens in December.
On this play, in order to be prepared in case a Ravens defender were to shoot through off his left shoulder, Raiola decides to give Haloti Ngata only half of his attention.
His strength allows him to hold off Ngata while still being prepared for pressure from his left.
Once Ngata makes it to the point where Raiola must commit to him, he’s able to seal him off and let Matt Stafford get off a clean pass.
Didn’t see that from Gradkowski last year, did you?
At 35, Raiola likely wouldn’t command more than two or three years in a contract.
If he opts to move on from Detroit, he could be the perfect fit in Baltimore.
Another veteran who is nearing the end of his career, Roberto Garza could be a viable, affordable option on a short deal. He will be 35 when the 2014 season begins, but may still have a few more years left in him. He isn’t as strong as Raiola, but Garza can still hold his own in pass protection, which is his forte.
What the Ravens need is a center whose best asset is pass protection. Of course, Baltimore’s run game needs to be fixed – which most of the free agent centers can help with – but we all remember how much Flacco was pressured in 2013; the Ravens can’t afford to let him keep taking hard hits.
Garza’s ability to recover in pass protection and avoid bad situations is one of his strengths.
Going up against Michael Brockers – one of the NFL’s more relentless interior defensive linemen – Garza avoided letting up a sack in a situation where Flacco likely would have fell victim to Gradkowski’s inability to hold off his man.
Brockers gets the leverage on Garza and appears to have a clear path to the quarterback as he sheds Garza off with one arm.
Garza is able to quickly kick back right and regain his positioning.
He doesn’t give his quarterback an ideal pocket, but he holds Brockers off long enough to allow Josh McCown to get the throw off.
Like Raiola, the Ravens would have to benefit from a veteran willing to change teams to get him, but Garza could come rather cheap given the plethora of free agent centers.
We have another 35-year-old on the list. Jonathan Goodwin, however, has a different skill set than the previous two centers discussed here. Goodwin would be a potential option if the Ravens want to focus on improving the run game when looking for a center.
Run blocking is Goodwin’s game, and with Baltimore’s new zone-blocking focus, Goodwin’s ability to get to the second level and hold down his blocks in space could be a major asset.
On a goal line play here, Goodwin was the only lineman to move up to the second level.
He successfully locates and engages with the linebacker, staying with his block through the play.
Goodwin moves well in space and could be the experienced run blocker Baltimore needs. His age doesn’t appear to limit him in the run game yet, as he moved well getting to the second level in 2013. As he’ll be approaching age 36 by late next season (December), Goodwin likely won’t command more than a two-year deal.
San Francisco figures to be his most logical destination, but if the 49ers want to move on to a new long-term center, Goodwin would be an intriguing option on the open market, as he would greatly improve Baltimore’s interior run game, while also providing satisfactory work in pass protection.
Other names to keep an eye on: Brian De La Puente (New Orleans) and Evan Dietrich-Smith (Green Bay). Both are much younger than the guys above, at 28 and 27 respectively, and would likely command larger contracts on the market.
With the Ravens likely being tight on money during free agency, it’s unknown whether they’ll have the money to dedicate to the center position that these younger two will likely receive. In addition, De La Puente greatly underwhelmed me when I was watching film of his 2013 season, and doesn’t look like he’d be a major upgrade for the Ravens.