Ravens need Matt Birk back at center

Six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk has decided to play this season after contemplating retirement, Birk's agent told the Carroll County Times (Md.) on Saturday.

"Matt feels great," agent Joe Linta said. "The Ravens want him back. We're going to try to work something out with the Ravens before free agency."

While Linta is confident about Birk's return to Baltimore, Ravens officials are sending mixed signals about the unrestricted free agent. Ravens coach John Harbaugh made it clear Friday when he told reporters at the NFL combine: "We want him back.” But general manager Ozzie Newsome said on the same day that Birk’s return is “up for discussion."

Birk's first choice is returning to the Ravens, and Baltimore needs him back at center for one more season. The Ravens need to find their center of the future in this draft (perhaps Wisconsin's Peter Konz, the top center in this draft class) even if Birk is re-signed. Teams are typically not comfortable starting a rookie at center because he is the quarterback of the offensive line; the Ravens have never started a first-year player at center for a full season.

Birk would be the perfect player and teacher as the Ravens make this transition at center. His solid 2011 season was marred by a disastrous game against New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork, which wasn't a reflection of his effort all year. According to Pro Football Focus, Birk finished this past season as the sixth-most efficient pass-blocking center, allowing 10 pressures on 584 pass plays (98.6 percent).

One of Birk's best assets is his toughness. He has started 96 consecutive games, the NFL’s second-longest active streak among centers. And few can match Birk's character. He was named Walter Payton Man of the Year, the only NFL award that recognizes a player for his community service activities as well as his excellence on the field.