The younger brother of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, Gradkowski was drafted in the fourth round last year out of Delaware as the center of the future. And Birk retired in February.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pounder gets high marks for his athleticism and his performance in the regular-season finale against a Cincinnati Bengals defensive line headlined by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins, but is slightly undersized.
"I think people probably look at Gino and think, 'Oh, he's kind of a small guy,'" Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said during The Baltimore Sun Sports Forum. "He's a small-school guy and he's probably not the biggest guy physically, but I think he's a gritty, smart tough guy, very quick-footed. He fits our zone blocking scheme very well.
"He's definitely going to have every opportunity to be a starting center for us this year. He's going to have some competition. He's got the right mentality, the right makeup, the drive to be a good player. He comes from a football family. He's an important piece of the puzzle."
Gradkowski spent his rookie season soaking up knowledge from Birk: learning how to snap the football precisely to quarterback Joe Flacco, how to diagnose defenses' blitz and stunt packages to make line calls, and acquiring the work habits of a professional offensive lineman.
"I don't think I could ever replace a guy like Matt, especially off the field, with his leadership qualities in the locker room," Gradkowski told The Sun earlier this year. "He's unlike any other person I've ever been around. I'm just excited for the opportunity. I know I'll have to earn this spot because nothing is ever just handed to you."
Gradkowski's most extensive action was against the Bengals, where he was in for 73 of 89 offensive snaps.
"Gino will be fine," Birk said during his retirement announcement in February. "The one thing about football is there's 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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