Top 10 Draft Needs No. 5: Center

Top 10 Draft Needs No. 5: Center
April 20, 2013, 12:15 pm
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In the 10 days leading up to the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday, April 25, we are counting down the Ravens biggest needs heading into the draft.

Today, it's No. 5: center

With the retirement of 15-year veteran Matt Birk, who started every game at center for the Ravens over the past three seasons, there is suddenly a gaping hole in the middle of the Ravens offensive line.

The leading candidate to fill it is Gino Gradkowski, a fourth-round draft pick from Delaware last season.

Gradkowki played in every game last season, but primarily on special teams. He played extensively at center in the season finale against Cincinnati, but saw little action on the line the rest of the season.

The Ravens are optimistic that the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Gradkowski is ready to succeed Birk.

"Gino did a nice job last year," coach John Harbaugh said at the Ravens pre-draft news conference earlier this week. "He played really well in the Bengals game, which we felt like that was a big test for him. We had an opportunity to see him against a really good defensive line, and he held up. He’s a little more physical and stout than he may look, and he’s got great feet. He’s a smart guy and it matters to him. He’s our center. He’s at the pole position right now.”

But what if Gradkowski isn't the answer? Or what if he gets hurt? The backup to Gradkowski probably isn't on the roster right now. Last year, Marshal Yanda took reps in pregame drills as an emergency third center, though he was never needed in that regard. Reggie Stephens, a rookie from Iowa State, was signed to the Ravens practice squad in January and figures to get a look.

But the Ravens could look to strengthen the position in the draft, ideally finding someone who can play multiple spots on the line.

One player who could be on their radar -- especially given general manager Ozzie Newsome's ties to Alabama -- is former Crimson Tide center Barrett Jones. Jones is coming off offseason foot surgery, but he played center, guard and tackle at Alabama and is considered a midround draft pick, where the Ravens have consistently found quality players.

Here is the countdown of the Ravens top 10 draft needs:

No. 10: Edge rusher

No. 9: Offensive guard

No. 8: Third tight end

No. 7: Special teams

No. 6: Backup fullback