Gino Gradkowski In Line To Replace The 'Irreplaceable'


As Matt Birk announced his retirement Friday, he pointed to his heir.

The logical man for the job is Gino Gradkowski, whom the Ravens drafted in the fourth round last year to spend a year being mentored by the veteran.

But just because Gradkowski is the logical choice doesn't mean it's an easy job. Gradkowski called Birk "irreplaceable on and off the field."

"I have mixed feelings," Gradkowski said Monday.

"Matt's had a tremendous impact on my life in the last six months. He's just been a great influence on me. It's sad to see him go because you build such strong connections with guys on your team and you never want to see them go."

On the other hand, there is now a clear path to the field for Gradkowski. The Ravens don't have another center on the roster.

Gradkowski isn't taking that for granted.

"I was raised to believe that nothing is ever handed to you, and especially at this level," Gradkowski said. "They're going to bring somebody in, and that's fine. I have to work for this spot. The way I see it is there's a job opening. I need to work my butt off this offseason to earn that spot."

The former Delaware product was active for all 16 games last season and got a sort of tryout in Week 17 when the Ravens rested their starters for most of the game. Gradkowski played 73 snaps and held his own against the likes of Pro Bowler Geno Atkins and the rest of the Bengals' talented defensive line.

"It was definitely a great experience for me," Gradkowski said. "I think I gained a lot of confidence throughout the year. I got really good with the offense, the mental part of it and looking at defenses and things like that. Mentally is where I think I improved most my first year."

Gradkowski said he spent a lot of time working with Birk on the mental aspects of the game. The Harvard graduate and 15-year veteran "thinks so fast that it's amazing sometimes," Gradkowski said. But after watching it enough, Gradkowski started to see the game through Birk's eyes.

"You start to realize what he's seeing," Gradkowski said.

Gradkowski says he has a lot of physical aspects to improve on this offseason before entering training camp. The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder said he doesn't want to add any more bulk, because he wants to maintain his movement, but he would like to get stronger both in his upper and lower body.

Gradkowski looked the part of a rookie last year, and an offseason in the weight room will help improve his physique to handle the rigors of a long season in the trenches. Gradkowski, who is currently back home in Pittsburgh, said he plans on being in Baltimore for all of the voluntary workouts.

One thing that Birk saw in Gradkowski that made him comfortable with him being the heir was his work ethic.

"Gino will be fine," Birk said at his retirement announcement.

"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."

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