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Matt Birk Not Retiring; Ravens' Future at Center?

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According to recent reports the Baltimore Ravens’ veteran center, Matt Birk, is planning to return next year for what will be his 15th season. Birk, a six-time pro-bowler and the NFL’s Man of the Year, has spent three seasons as the Ravens’ anchor of the offensive line and has been a main cog for the offenses successes in Baltimore since 2009.

As the center, it was Birk’s job to be the focus point of the offensive line and to call out defensive positions in order to get the rest of the offensive line lined up properly. Communication between the center and quarterback is absolutely key, and in all of these areas, Birk has done an excellent job for the Ravens.

What Birk returning for another season means for the Ravens remains unclear because as it stands now, Birk is set to become an unrestricted free agent when March 13th rolls around. Though he stayed healthy through the entirety of this season and started each game, questions may now begin to arise about how much longer Birk can keep his game up at this pace.

Birk will be turning 36 years-old this summer and will require a fresh contract in order to return to the Ravens next year. The Ravens have expressed their desire to add a new face at the center position this off-season, with general manager Ozzie Newsome saying:

"Before we line up and play in 2012, there will be another center on this football team in some capacity – free agency, draft or whatever"

The Ravens have several options when faced with the question of how to address their starting center position, such as: Matt Birk, Andre Gurode, a free agent center, and the draft. Because of the vast array of options out there, the question now becomes: what is the best move for the Ravens at center for next season, and the future beyond 2012?

(After the "Jump", see a quick breakdown of the Ravens’ options)

Because the center plays such a key role in any NFL offense, the Ravens will be faced with the tough task of making the best decisions for the good of their offensive line next year and into the future while not hindering the Ravens’ overall progress and growth.

The Ravens, fortunately, boast the luxury of having several options of which to choose from. Here is a quick look at some of those options that they have at the center position:

Matt Birk: Birk is a seasoned NFL veteran that knows the game. As he gears up for his 15th season, the Ravens will have to decide if he is an important part of the Ravens’ future plans on offense. The soon-to-be 36 year old unfortunately can’t go on forever and the Ravens will be wary to spend too much money on someone who won’t be around for the long-haul. If Birk wishes to return to the Ravens next season he will most likely have to do so for about the veteran minimum. The up-side to Birk is that he knows the Ravens’ system inside and out and has worked very well commanding the offensive line and working with Joe Flacco for years now. In a season in which the Ravens came so close, will they be willing to let that great continuity and leadership go in favor of someone younger and more athletic?

Andre Gurode: Gurode, seemingly, was brought in to become the stop-gap center between Birk and the Ravens’ future. While Gurode didn’t see any playing time at center, he did fill in as the left guard while Ben Grubbs was sidelined with an injury showing off some versatility. Gurode like Birk, isn’t a long-term solution for the Ravens and though this might be true, Gurode is 32 years old and may have a few years more left in the tank than Birk. Heading into his 11th season, Gurode has shown his capability in the past to be a top-of-the-line center in the NFL as evidenced by his 5 pro-bowl selections (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). Although Gurode is an unrestricted free agent this off-season, there are several things working in his favor. Gurode will most likely have a few solid years of football ahead of him and after being with the Ravens for a full year, he could come in a take over from the get-go because he’ll know all the calls and will understand the inner-workings of the offense. Gurode has also proved to be very durable starting in 127 of 151 regular season games over a ten year span. It very may well come down to who the Ravens value more, Birk or Gurode, and who will command less money.

Draft: The 2012 NFL draft is around the corner and already the Ravens have been linked to a few offensive line prospects that could become major components of the future. With a deep class of interior offensive linemen, the Ravens will have many options to choose from in order to address their center position. Perhaps the most often linked center to be chosen by the Ravens is Wisconsin’s, Peter Konz. Konz came in at a reported 6-5 315 lbs during the Combine this past weekend and has a slew of game film to prove that he’s the best center, maybe even the best interior lineman, in the 2012 draft. Konz performed extremely well as the anchor of Wisconsin’s offensive line and excels at both run and pass blocking. He opens up great holes for running backs and holds up well against defensive pressure up the middle, something the Ravens struggled mightily with at times this season. Konz could represent extraordinary value where the Ravens select 29th overall in the 1st round in the form of future security for the Ravens’ offensive line.

Another great value pick in the later rounds could be Michigan’s, David Molk. Although a bit undersized, Molk impressed at the combine with 41 bench press reps of 225 lbs. Molk measured in at 6-1 298 lbs, which is small compared to some centers, but even smaller when you consider that the weight he posted was 12 lbs heavier than his playing weight while in college. What he lacks in size, Molk makes up for in quickness. Although he suffered a foot injury which required surgery not too long ago, Molk is quick on his feet with good mobility and the ability to run and pass block very well. Projected to be a 3rd-5th round pick, Molk could provide good value in the late rounds as a player to sit for a season to bulk up and study behind some veterans.

The Ravens will have several options on how to solidify their offensive line. The front office will have decide on who they wish to have play at center next year, but with so many players to choose from, this could prove to be a good problem to have. I trust that the front office will make the right decisions for the future of the offense and balance the line between veteran savvy and young talent.