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Ravens have a center to groom behind Birk

The Sports Xchange

--The Ravens drafted University of Delaware All-America center Gino Gradkowski in the fourth round. Gradkowski is expected to be groomed behind six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk.

"I had a great feel, I feel like I fit that mentality well," Gradkowski said. "I'm elated right now because Baltimore plays football the way it's meant to be played. And that just excites me. It's a perfect spot for me.

"Come in and maybe play guard my first year and eventually take over at center. That's what I was looking to do, get in behind a veteran like Matt Birk. I'm really excited to meet him and pick his brain about football. It's a perfect scenario, and I just couldn't be happier."

The younger brother of NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, the 6-2, 300-pounder visited the Ravens, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons.

The Pittsburgh native conducted private workouts for the Ravens, Titans and the Philadelphia Eagles.

A two-time All-Colonial Athletic Association selection who transferred from West Virginia, Gradkowski ran the 40-yard dash in 5.25 seconds at his Pro Day workout and bench-pressed 225 pounds 29 times with a 28 1/2 inch vertical leap, an 8-7 broad jump, a 4.78 20-yard shuttle and a 7.75 three-cone drill.

"I definitely take pride in being athletic," Gradkowski said. "I played basketball in high school. That's where I got my athleticism from. I'm good in space at blocking the secondary guys. I take a lot of pride in my ability to understand offenses and defenses. Mentally-wise, I bring a lot to the table."

"It's good that I played all three inside positions at Delaware. My versatility, bouncing around the inside, obviously helps. Anybody that goes to the NFL wants to be a starter. That's my goal. If I need to be that swing man as a backup my first year, that's fine. I want to compete for a starting job."

Gradkowski said he tries to emulate veteran NFL centers like Birk and Green Bay Packers center Jeff Saturday.

"I'm just a hard-nosed guy, a hard worker," Gradkowski said. "I played at Delaware and we did a lot of pulling and stuff like that. So, I feel good in space and I feel like athleticism is one of my strong points. So, definitely versatility is also is my strong point."

--As outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele and running back Bernard Pierce were introduced at team headquarters Saturday, the defending AFC North champions stuck to their strategy of reinforcing the depth of the roster.

While Upshaw and Osemele will immediately vie for starting jobs at strong-side linebacker and left guard and Pierce is regarded as the front-runner to back up Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, the Ravens utilized the final day of the NFL draft to keep filling holes.

"If you look back over the three days and what we've been able to do with our football team, you all knew the areas that we wanted to address," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "They all come with different skills. I think we've been able to do it with the young men that we've drafted thus far. It's been a successful three days from that standpoint, but we really won't know until we get them on the field."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh already sounded convinced that the Ravens had injected the right kind of football temperament into his locker room.

"We think they're a great fit for our team, they fit our personality," Harbaugh said. "They're tough, physical, hard-nosed, rough, tough kind of guys."

--The Ravens' haul of eight draft picks included four players apiece on offense and defense.

The Ravens needed to identify potential replacements at guard with Pro Bowl offensive guard Ben Grubbs signing a $36 million contract with the New Orleans Saints; at strong-side linebacker after Jarret Johnson signed a $19 million contract with the San Diego Chargers and at running back after Ricky Williams abruptly retired after the season.

"You always try to draft the best player out there and try to make your team as strong as you can," Harbaugh said. "There's also the element of need. All three of these guys (Upshaw, Osemele and Pierce) are probably at positions where they can help us right away. We have some opportunity in there for these guys to play."

--The Ravens also selected speedy South Carolina State free safety Christian Thompson, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.

A transfer from Auburn, the 6-0, 211-pounder is regarded as being interchangeable at free safety and strong safety.

He was mentored by Ravens Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed heading into the draft.

"Big, physical, he fits the mold of these three guys right up there," Harbaugh said."There is a theme to our draft right now."

A transfer from Auburn, Thompson earned all-conference honors last season as he recorded 66 tackles and two interceptions. As a junior, he had 46 tackles with one interception and seven pass deflections.

Thompson visited the Ravens prior to the draft. And Baltimore needed depth at the position with Reed often dealing with lingering injuries, including a nerve impingement in his neck, and reserve safeties Haruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski signing with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts this offseason.

"We look at him as a real physical guy, the kind of safety that we like," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said. "He will come up and really hit you. He can also play in the back end. We love him as a special teams guy, no doubt. We lost a couple of good players this year at safety who were good special teams players for us.

"Christian was a player that we identified early. I think he was probably one of our favorite defensive players, certainly one of the favorite defensive players on the coaches' board this year, and we're excited to get him."

--It wasn't always a smooth process despite the Ravens' conscientious preparations.

"Our board was very similar to the other 31 clubs," general manager Ozzie Newsome said.

Many coveted players went off the board before the Ravens could get in position to pick them, including Alabama middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower and Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones going to the New England Patriots and Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler joining the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round.

"I think we probably had to manufacture some runs this year," DeCosta said. "We had some players that we liked, and they got picked, and we had to get creative quickly on the fly. I thought that the trade opportunity in the first round was fantastic. We were prepared.

"We were very organized this year, probably the most organized we've ever been in terms of the different scenarios. Things don't always happen the way you want them to. Some drafts, every player that you want kind of comes to you. Sometimes, you just get wiped out. You have four players, and all of the sudden, boom they are gone. You have to get creative."

QUOTE TO NOTE "I think I'm excited that we were able to fortify the offense and the defense, four players on offense and four players on defense. It was a balanced draft. We didn't try to do that, but if you talk to the offensive coaches, they would be very happy, and the defensive couches would be very excited with what we've done." -- Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta.

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.


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