Gino Gradkowski, you are the next man up.
The Ravens rookie center wasn't heard from a whole lot this past season, but that's about to change. With Matt Birk's retirement on Friday, Gradkowski is first in line to be the Ravens starting center in 2013.
Like Joe Flacco, Gradkowski started at a larger school and finished at the University of Delaware. Flacco spent some time at Pitt; Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native, spent two seasons at West Virginia before transferring to Delaware.
The Ravens picked the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Gradkowski with the first of their two fourth-round draft picks. Gradkowski, the younger brother of Cincinnati backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, can play guard as well as center, but upon his selection he was seen as an understudy and as the heir apparent to Birk.
Gradkowski played in every game this past season, though his primary contribution was on special teams. But he had an entire season to watch and learn the ropes as an NFL offensive lineman under Birk, a 15-year NFL veteran. Beginning in training camp, Gradkowski frequently mentioned how valuable it was on to be on the sideline with Birk and just "pick his brain."
The book on Gradkowski is that he is an athletic player but is on the small side for an NFL center and will need to increase his strength to handle NFL defensive linemen snap after snap. The Ravens still could look to the free agent market for a veteran center, but with their cap situation they aren't likely to pay a lot for one. Or they could look in the draft again. But for now, Gradkowski moves to the top of the depth chart after paying his dues for a season.
" Gino will be fine," Birk said at his retirement ceremony. "The one thing about football is there [are] a lot of tangible things or requirements that you need, but I think the biggest thing about football is that it’s a character game, because it’s hard. It’s different from other sports. And Gino’s got that. He’s a great guy, he’s got a fantastic family, and Gino will do whatever it takes to be successful."