Yesterday, John Elway and the Denver Broncos did something they rarely do—make a trade. They sent a 2016 fourth round pick to the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for center Gino Gradkowski and a 2016 fifth round pick.
At first blush, the Broncos come out ahead in this transaction—a versatile young player, at a position of need, with starting experience, in exchange for a future fourth round pick. Throw on top of that a fifth round pick in the same draft in which they gave up the fourth rounder, and it looks even better.
And it might be that the Broncos got the better end of the bargain, but we won’t know for sure for some time. MHH has some reservations about this move, most notably surrounding the track record of the player involved in the swap—Gino Gradkowski.
Gradkowski was drafted by the Ravens in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft out of Delaware. He was drafted to become the eventual replacement for center Matt Birk, who had become quite long in the tooth.
As a rookie, Gradkowski saw 89 snaps and started one game at center in Week 17, earning a +1.8 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus. However, when Birk retired, following the Ravens 2012 Super Bowl championship, the torch was passed to Gradkowski as the Ravens starting center moving forward.
Unfortunately, Gradkowski struggled in 2013 as a 16-game starter, finishing dead last among starting centers with a -15.6 cumulative grade. He had a six-game stretch of being in the red to open the season. From there, he was hit and miss.
Gradkowski ultimately had problems at the point of attack, relinquishing 3 sacks, 7 QB hits and 26 hurries. Like many undersized centers, he struggled with power. Big bull-rushers and space-eaters had their way with him.
The Ravens were obviously troubled by Gradkowski’s struggles, as they traded a fifth round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in exchange for Jeremy Zuttah, who was immediately dubbed the starter by Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh.
Zuttah went on to stabilize the position, contributing to Justin Forsett’s breakout year on the ground and the renaissance of Joe Flacco. The biggest factor that led to the Ravens offensive turnaround in 2014 was the influence of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak (now the head man in Denver).
Gradkowski says he now has a chip on his shoulder, as a result of his demotion and spoke to that in his conference call with the media.
"Just going a year without playing [and] kind of having all that held back," he said. "Obviously I only dressed about a little over half of the season. I feel fired up about that. It was very difficult for me, but I came out of it a better player and a better person. I have a chip on my shoulder now. I feel like I have a lot to prove and I can’t wait to get started with that. In terms of Coach Kubiak’s offense, it gave me a chance to learn his offense and gave me a chance to understand it a lot better.”
Gradkowski would only see 10 snaps in 2014 but as a smallish center (6-foot-3, 300 pounds), he could excel in Kubiak’s zone blocking system. Zuttah was more or less handed the starting job in Baltimore. But in Denver, Gradkowski is going to battle with Manuel Ramirez and Matt Paradis in what will likely be an open competition for starting center.
Gradkowski is excited to be back with Kubiak and feels confident that this offensive system fits him perfectly.
“I think I fit [Head Coach Gary Kubiak’s] offense well," he said. "I think his offense fits me. I’m very excited about being here with him. He’s a great coach and I really look forward to working with him again.”
The upshot on the Gradkowski trade is that he’s only 26 years old and just entering his fourth pro season. Continuing his tutelage under Kubiak and his offensive assistants, Rick Dennison and Clancy Barone, could be just what Gradkowski needs to turn the ship around. Also, Gradkowski believes his size gives him an advantage in Kubiak's scheme.
“I think it helps undersized guys—not that I would say that I’m undersized—but I’m smaller than some of the other centers in the league. I think it helps us with the movement and stuff like that.”
Kubiak has stated that he has high hopes for last season’s sixth round pick, Matt Paradis, and that he considers Manny Ramirez to be one of the big three on the Broncos offensive line. However, Ramirez is versatile and experienced enough that if the Broncos don’t like the way the competition goes at left guard between Shelley Smith and Ben Garland, Ramirez could slide over and hold down the fort.
The Broncos gave up a fourth round pick to acquire a player drafted three years ago in the same round, plus they received a fifth rounder for next season. This trade will be judged based on whether Gradkowski wins the center job in training camp.
If he fails, it will likely mean that Paradis or Ramirez won. The Broncos needed depth on the O-line. At the very least, the Gradkowski trade offers that. Plus, he has starting experience. Don’t worry too much about that fourth rounder the Broncos gave up because they’re likely to be flush with draft picks in 2016 again, once the compensatory selections are metered out by the league for the losses of Julius Thomas, Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin and Terrance Knighton.
Factoring all these components in, the Broncos decision to trade for Gradkowski was a low-risk, high-reward transaction. If Gradkowski can blossom under the Broncos coaching and become the center the Ravens drafted him to be, the trade will be a smashing success. If he fails to win the starting job, the Broncos have an experienced role player on the bench. Low-risk, high-reward.
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