Unsurprisingly, Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk announced his retirement on Friday after 14 years in the league, including four with the Ravens with whom he just won his first Super Bowl ring, according to Jeff Zrebiec and Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun.
Birk's retirement was anticipated—he was considering doing so last offseason but decided to return for just one more year—but it puts the Ravens in an interesting position, nonetheless.
Financially, Birk's retirement will provide the team with $2.05 million in additional cap room, putting them $12.864 million under the projected $122 million salary cap—which doesn't include the $4.35 million they'll save once linebacker Ray Lewis formally retires.
However, losing Birk's veteran leadership will be a blow to the Ravens, especially with Lewis gone and safety Ed Reed's future in Baltimore looking bleak. The Ravens will be a very different, younger team in 2013, partially because of these three men not being around, and it will be imperative that players like Terrell Suggs and Joe Flacco step up to fill the leadership void.
In terms of the offensive line itself, Birk's retirement could be just the first in a series of changes, considering the Ravens' cap situation and the free-agency status of tackle Bryant McKinnie. In 2013, the line could be quite different from the reshuffled version that performed so well in their playoff run that ended with a Lombardi Trophy.
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Matt Birk: "Today I'm announcing my retirement from the NFL."2/22/2013, 4:42:41 PM
Birk's heir apparent seems to be Gino Gradkowski, their 2012 fourth-round pick who played 89 snaps over the course of the season, including 73 at center in Week 17 against the Cincinnati Bengals when starters were rested for most of the game.
However, that leaves them without depth at the position—there are no other centers on their roster, including the practice squad. With the Ravens so short on cash this year, and with so many of their own impending free agents being of high priority, it appears they'll again have to go to the draft in order to boost their ranks.
How confident the Ravens are in Gradkowski's ability to step in and start will determine how they approach the position in the draft. If they want competition, then they may try to address center early on—perhaps even in the first round with Alabama's Barrett Jones.
Earlier this week I named Jones as someone the Ravens need to be watching intently at the scouting combine. He's the top-rated center heading into the combine and has experience playing guard and tackle as well as center, which makes him even that more enticing—at best, he can compete with Gradkowski for the starting job and at worst, he'll provide depth for him and the rest of the line.
If confidence is high in Gradkowski, however, then center is something the Ravens can address in the second or third days of the draft. San Jose State's David Quesenberry could be a mid-round option. Quessenberry has the capability to play both guard and center, with the latter being a better fit for him as long as he gains some weight.
Brian Schwenke out of Cal is also another mid-round center option. He, too, has experience playing at guard but should be a better center in the NFL with an ability to take on double-teams. Louisville's Mario Benavides could be a second- or third-day draft pick who could be worth developing behind Gradkowski to serve as depth at center.
The other option for the Ravens is to find a bargain in free agency. Though this is the least likely scenario considering the salary cap, it's not completely out of the question. There is, of course, merit to bringing on a veteran to add depth to the line, especially with it potentially about to get much younger.
Because of their 10 or more years in the league, guys like Denver's Dan Koppen or Atlanta's Todd McClure could come at a discount. There are other, more marginal centers like Jacksonville's Steve Vallos, who played only 127 snaps in 2012, who could also carry a price tag friendly to Baltimore's cap situation.
No matter what route they take—rookie or veteran—Birk's retirement means the Ravens need to add more depth on the offensive line. This new center may challenge Gradkowski for the starting job or just provide insurance at the position. Regardless, with Birk retiring, the focus shifts to what the future holds for Baltimore's offensive line and whether or not its postseason success can be replicated in 2013 with younger players at key positions.
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