Measurables: 6-foot-3, 300 pounds.
2014 stats: 10 snaps.
Gino Gradkowski played his collegiate ball at Delaware, starting 37 games at center, left and right guard over his career. He earned back-to-back first-team All Colonial Athletic Association honors (2010-11), along with being named an FCS All-American by the Associated Press and American Football Coaches Association for his senior year with the Blue Hens.
At his Pro Day, he displayed decent results in agility drills and threw up 29 reps on the bench press (225). The Baltimore Ravens selected him with the No. 98 overall pick in the 2012 (fourth round). He was drafted to be the heir apparent to perennial Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, whose career was on it’s last legs. He retired following the Ravens victory in Super Bowl XLVII.
When Birk hanged up his cleats, Gradkowski was thrust into a starting role. He started all 16 games in 2013, participating in all 1,136 offensive snaps. With a -15.6 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus, he was the lowest-rated center in the league.
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Gradkowski’s inability to get it done in 2013 led to the Ravens acquiring Jeremy Zuttah, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As a result, Gradkowski only saw 10 offensive snaps in 2014. But his time with the second team gave him opportunity to learn from and work closely with Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison.
Gradkowski learned the tenets of the full stretch zone blocking scheme and although he was never able to unseat Zuttah, he made an impression on Kubiak and Dennison, who orchestrated a trade to bring him with them to the Denver Broncos.
The Broncos gave up a 2016 fourth round pick to acquire Gradkowski. The Ravens were so eager to unload him that they also sent a 2016 fifth round pick to the Broncos in the trade. About a month later, Gradkowski’s prospects with the Broncos improved when they sent Manuel Ramirez to the Detroit Lions as part of the trade to move up and select Shane Ray with the No. 23 overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft.
With Ramirez’s departure, Gradkowski became the only player on the roster with starting experience at center, albeit with an unimpressive track record. Throughout offseason training activities, he competed with Matt Paradis and Max Garcia for the starting center job.
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Kubiak must have liked what he saw in Gradkowski, as he was eventually named the starter heading into training camp. Entering his fourth NFL season, if Gradkowski is going to turn the corner in his development, the time is now.
During the 2012 draft process, Gradkowski was considered to be a serviceable center prospect, at the very least, but most draftniks and scouts believed he would need time to develop. He's been given that time. Although he’s somewhat undersized, which is good for the ZBS, he showed great strength in his bench press reps.
His agility and size should serve him well in Kubiak’s system. One of the keys to Gradkowski’s success in Denver will be how well he meshes with Peyton Manning. Manning is known for cultivating symbiotic relationships with his centers, but in his three years in Denver, he’s uncharacteristically taken snaps from four different players.
Once the pads go on, Gradkowski will have to be markedly better than his competition to keep the job. The team has invested heavily in the center position of late, expending two selections over the last two drafts on centers.
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The concern is experience. The team already hit the reset button in firing John Fox and hiring Kubiak. With Kubiak comes a new offensive and defensive system and with the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady, the Broncos lost a veteran experienced in the scheme.
However, although Gradkowski has starting experience, most of the Broncos offensive line are on equal footing, learning a new system. Gradkowski has a year in the ZBS under his belt, but not much by way practical application. Remember those 10 snaps?
So, if the Broncos truly envision Paradis as a possible long-term answer at center, now would be the best time for him to step up and win the job. John Elway and the Broncos have committed to the ‘adapt-or-die’ mantra. They’re banking on their crop of young O-linemen stepping up and producing in 2015.
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Getting back to the experience thing, or lack thereof, if Paradis won the starting center job, and assuming Ben Garland (LG) and Ty Sambrailo (LT) hold onto theirs, the Broncos would field an offensive line in Week 1 that would feature three-out-of-five players starting their first career game.
With a 39-year-old quarterback, that might be tempting fate a bit too much. However, football is a production-based business. If Gradkowski produces in training camp, he’ll keep his job. If he doesn’t, the man who out-produces him deserves the job, regardless of his starting experience.
Are you ready for training camp yet?
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