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Rick Wagner Quietly Becoming Dominant Tackle


The first time Rick Wagner had to step in for Michael Oher, it was a disaster.

It was opening night last season in Denver when the rookie Wagner relieved the injured Oher. Linebacker Shaun Phillips beat Wagner for 2.5 sacks that night.

Oh how times have changed.

Now Wagner is Oher's full-time replacement, and it's clear the Ravens made the right decision letting Oher walk and placing their faith in Wagner.

With Oher (and Phillips) coming to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday as members of the Titans, Wagner has a chance to show just how far he's come.

"I'm pretty happy with the way I've been playing," Wagner said. "I think I've made a pretty smooth transition to my starting role."

Analytical website Pro Football Focus (PFF), rates Wagner as the best right tackle in the league and fifth-best offensive tackle (right or left) in the NFL. He's earned midseason All-Pro honors from PFF and CBS Sports. Wagner said the honors are a "confidence boost," but he isn't one to brag.

As Wagner spoke to reporters Wednesday, he nervously crossed his hands and swayed back and forth. He said he felt more comfortable in Pittsburgh last Sunday than at the mic.

Wagner hardly says a word to anyone. He's had a handful of interview requests this season, and that's a generous estimation. The Ravens right tackle's play has hardly been noticed this year, which is often a positive for an offensive lineman.

"Probably the thing that jumps out at me is his consistency," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "Rick is very consistent. He executes the techniques exactly the way that the scheme calls for."

While the rest of the Ravens offensive line was battered by the Steelers pass rush last Sunday, Wagner had his finest game of the season, per PFF.

On the flight back in the wee hours of Monday morning, some players slept. Some were just too drained from the tough loss. Wagner was on his iPad, studying film from the loss with Offensive Line Coach Juan Castillo hovering over his shoulder.

It's that blue-collar work ethic that Wagner has built himself upon, because he didn't have the typical path to the NFL.

Wagner considered himself a basketball player until his sophomore year of high school when football coach Scott Otto offered him a deal. If he came out and played football, he could play wide receiver so he had a lower chance of injury, which Wagner was leery of with the basketball season approaching.

Wagner fell in love with football and ended up walking on as a tight end at Wisconsin, a school that churns out NFL-ready offensive linemen. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder outgrew tight end, so he made the switch to left tackle and ended up starting 37 games and receiving first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior. He protected Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson's blind side.

Still, 11 offensive tackles were drafted ahead of Wagner in the 2013 draft. The Ravens plucked him off the board with the final pick of the fifth round (No. 168 overall).

"He played in a good football program in college, so obviously that talent is going to follow you," left guard Kelechi Osemele said. "He came in here and has been nothing but business."

After Wagner served as a backup in his rookie season, he was given his first crack at the starting job when Oher left in free agency. The Ravens weren't exactly sure what they would get from Wagner, but they were hoping he could handle it.

Since the start of the summer, Wagner hasn't missed a single snap at right tackle – either in practices or games. Coaches often don't like to say they're "surprised" by a player's success because it implies they didn't think they could do it at the start. But there's no doubt Baltimore is pleased.

"When I came in here, you had a starting right tackle that hadn't played much football, so I didn't know much," Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak said last week.

"But I think the biggest compliment I can pay to him is that you haven't noticed much because he has just played very solid. He practices well; he's committed to what he's doing; he's a very steady player – doesn't make mistakes. He's on his way to being a very fine pro."

Wagner could even be in the discussion for the Pro Bowl, a far cry from what anybody expected heading into the season. Harbaugh said he had no idea whether Wagner was at that level, but that it would be great if he could accomplish it.

Wagner pointed to his improved pass protection as the biggest change this season, and attributed right guard Marshal Yanda with helping his run blocking. According to PFF, Wagner has given up just one sack and 13 quarterback hurries.

Wagner used to watch film of Oher last year to study his technique. "It was great backing him up last year. He's a good vet," he said.

But Wagner is outplaying his former mentor these days. While Oher is still reliable in the sense that he starts every game (hasn't missed a start in six seasons), Oher ranks 71st out of 74 offensive tackles on PFF's list and is the lowest-ranked right tackle.

Since leaving for Tennessee in free agency, Oher has taken notice of the man who has replaced him while watching film.

"Rick is doing a great job [and has] definitely grown a lot from last year," Oher said. "He's doing an excellent job."

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