OWINGS MILLS - In November, former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Wally Williams told the Times that he thought center Gino Gradkowski had somewhat unfairly become "the fall guy" for the problems the Ravens were having along the offensive line.

Not that Gradkowski played well. According to Pro Football Focus, he had the lowest grade in the NFL among starting centers this season.

But coach John Harbaugh said the 2012 fourth-round pick improved during the course of the year.

"[I saw] major progress in Gino as far as the communication part of it," Harbaugh said. "Early in the season, Gino would probably be the first to tell you that we had a lot of problems."

Not that growing pains were completely unexpected going from a 15-year veteran in Matt Birk to a second-year player who saw only minimal playing time as a rookie.

"You go from Matt Birk that does everything, that makes every call, and in some ways tells every lineman what to do in the heat of battle because he is so good - because you've got an offensive line coach basically in there playing center for you - to a guy that is doing it for the first time," Harbaugh said. "That was part of the reason that we didn't have a hat on a hat a lot of times early on, and that was a tough transition for us.

"And yet, Gino fights through it. And by the end of the year, he is making all those calls and doing a good job with that. [He is] a really smart guy, huge student of the game."

His progress was evident in meetings during the week.

Run game coordinator Juan Castillo and offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell both had Gradkowski get in front of the room during offensive line meetings and go through a lot from a game plan standpoint.

"So from a communication standpoint - talking to the guys in meetings and making sure we're on the same page with the calls before we get out there on the field - I've watched a number of those meetings, and he just does a great job with it," Harbaugh said. "So he's grown a lot, and [it's] something he should be able to build on."

Gradkowski will have to compete for the starting center job.

The Ravens have A.Q. Shipley, who Gradkowski competed with during the summer.

They also have sixth-round pick Ryan Jensen. Jensen broke his foot early in training camp and didn't play this year, but Harbaugh and others have said Jensen has the potential to be a good player.

Baltimore may also add a center during free agency or the NFL draft.

But it does look like Gradkowski is at least the early favorite to be the starting center again next season based on the progress he made.

However, he will have to earn that starting job in the coming months.

"The best guys deserve to play, and the guys who are the best guys are the guys who play the best," Harbaugh said. "And we've got to find those guys, and they know that."

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