With free agency less than a week away, the Ravens brass, fans and media alike are all assessing the team’s biggest needs.
One position group where all three factions likely agree that there is plenty of need is offensive line. With Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe set to hit the market, and Joe Flacco being sacked 48 times last year, it’s at the top of the list.
Among fans and media, there is an overwhelming consensus the Ravens need to upgrade at center. Gino Gradkowski, by most accounts, struggled in his first year taking over for veteran Matt Birk. He was pushed around by stronger defensive linemen, struggled reading defenses and complex blitzes, and may have even cost the Ravens a game in Chicago with a poor snap late in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t pretty.
So what’s the plan for 2014? It seems as if it’s a foregone conclusion that the Ravens need to go another direction. That, whether it’s Alex Mack, Brian Dietrich-Smith or Brian De La Puente, the Ravens need to bring in someone else. That they need a quality center with starting experience because Gradkowski isn’t the answer.
Are these fair assumptions?
Gradkowski has one year of starting experience at arguably one of the most challenging positions from a physical and mental standpoint in the NFL. Is it fair to write him off already? Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves a little bit here? After all, he was a fourth-round pick less than two years ago.
As a matter of fact, it seems there is only one man in Gradkowski’s corner: former mentor and former Ravens center Matt Birk. Outside of the Ravens front office, shouldn’t his opinion carry the most weight considering the fact that they sat in meetings and worked side by side for a full season?
When you talk to Birk, he doesn’t just seem confident, he seems convinced.
“He is the guy, no question,” said Birk recently.
“It’s a process. It’s a journey. I think the best thing going for Gino is his attitude and his character. That comes through when you’re playing football. As a Ravens fan myself, I don’t worry about Gino.”
Those are strong words from possibly one of the most intelligent players in Ravens history, former NFL man of the year and current appeals officer for the NFL. The Ravens – and their fans – should listen.
If there is anyone who understands Gino’s struggles and the challenges of being a successful starting center, its Birk. It took him three years to become a starter in the NFL. Even at that point he credited his success to the quality of the players and consistency around him.
Looking at the revolving door that was the Ravens offensive line last year, Gino never had the luxury of quality talent consistently surrounding him. The offensive line, maybe more so then any other position, is about building cohesiveness and chemistry with the guy next to you.
Do the Ravens need to bring in competition for Gradkwoski? No doubt about it. Do they need to go sign Alex Mack for top dollar?Absolutely not.
For a team with a long list of needs, giving Gradkowski some time to progress would be in the Ravens best interest. If the Ravens provide some consistency around him, his play should greatly improve in 2014. If anything the least the Ravens can do is give him a chance to prove them wrong.