Seven rounds of the 2014 NFL draft passed by with no answers as to who will be the replacement for Michael Oher at right tackle.
The Baltimore Ravens entered the draft with only one true candidate – second-year tackle Ricky Wagner, which led many to believe that the Ravens would address the right tackle position in the draft.
But with training camp less than two months away and the Ravens still penciling in Wagner, is he possibly the answer at the position?
Once June 1st rolls around, don’t be surprised to see the Ravens bring in a free agent or two to compete at the position, but even at that, Wagner is still the incumbent, and while inexperienced, he will have a prime chance to win the starting job.
As a rookie, expectations were low for the fifth-round pick. Once a highly regarded prospect out of Wisconsin, a mediocre 2012 season solidified him as a mid-round pick, but still one with starter ability in the NFL.
The Ravens were set at both tackle positions, leaving Wagner as a swing backup last season. He was expected to ride the bench to start his career, but a surprise turn of events saw him on the field early in Baltimore’s season opener against the Denver Broncos.
After a game-ending injury to Oher, Wagner ended up playing more than half of the game for the Ravens – 58 total snaps at right tackle – gaining invaluable experience in the earliest stage of his NFL career.
Once Oher returned to the field the following week, Wagner was relegated back to a backup role. The rest of the season was spent on the field in a limited role in Baltimore’s heavy run packages, which were a complete failure.
To judge Wagner as a right tackle, not much can be learned from his play in said packages, so taking a look at his lone extended time as a true right tackle last season – Week 1 in Denver – could shed some light on what he provides for the Ravens if he indeed is the starting right tackle this season.
His 58 snaps in Denver provided a little bit of everything regarding his expected play. At Wisconsin, Wagner was a powerful blocker with long arms, but sometimes didn’t have the foot quickness or consistent use of said arms to be successful.
That wasn’t any different in Denver.
On his very first play, Wagner gets isolated with edge rusher Shaun Phillips, a talented player who Wagner saw plenty of that night.
Phillips has ample operating space off the snap to hit Wagner with any pass rush move he wants.
The veteran opts for the head on, bull rush move, testing Wagner’s strength from the get-go.
As noted, strength is Wagner’s strong suit, and when given the opportunity to take on pass rushers in this fashion, he is given the best chance to seal off his man.
Wagner does just that, giving Phillips a nice seat on the ground.
While Wagner excels when given the opportunity to take on defenders straight on, recovering to catch faster rushers on the outside leads to problems.
Wagner is not the most nimble of athletes, and his foot speed often yields poor recovery time.
Later in the game, Wagner had the assignment of taking on a blitzing safety – David Bruton – from the outside.
With Bruton so far outside, Wagner helps with the inside block first. It should also be noted that running back Bernard Pierce takes on the linebacker blocking assignment, leaving Wagner isolated to block Bruton, but with plenty of time to do so.
Bruton comes flying off the edge and has already arrived to Wagner’s area before he fully releases off his first blocking endeavor.
Thus, Wagner is left out to dry as he is not quick enough to get to the outside, and Bruton dips right through Wagner’s block attempt, eventually getting a free shot at quarterback Joe Flacco.
When given time to set himself to fend off defenders, Wagner’s troubles are fairly minimal. As noticed in the play above, Wagner – just like in college – simply isn’t quick or agile enough to move to a new area in time.
Later in the game, however, Wagner put his long arms on display, sealing off Phillips again.
Phillips decides to use a bull rush move on Wagner similar to the first time, and Wagner positions himself well from the start.
The long arms come into play here, as instead of trying to use brute force to knock the pass rusher over similar to first play above, Wagner simply extends and holds his ground.
He rides Phillips around the edge, keeping his arms extended and putting Phillips out of reach of Flacco, ultimately turning Phillips around by the time Flacco throws the ball.
Baltimore’s offense was mainly pass-oriented against Denver as the Ravens trailed for the majority of the game, giving few opportunities to see Wagner’s run-blocking ability.
But one play late in the game came directly to his side, and he didn’t live up to the task.
Early in the play, Wagner engages with his long arms and gains favorable position on defensive end Malik Jackson.
As Pierce redirects to Wagner’s run lane, planting his left foot and driving Jackson away from the play would give Pierce a prime opportunity for yards.
Jackson is able to grab a hold of Wagner and gain leverage, throwing the blocker to his left as Pierce approaches.
Prior to allowing Jackson to gain the positive positioning, Wagner looked lackadaisical in his blocking effort, and an early-play drive of Jackson to Wagner’s right would have created an open run lane from the start.
The end result is Jackson shedding a marginal Wagner block and making the tackle.
Given the circumstances of the game – a rookie being thrown into the fire on the road against the eventual AFC champions in his first NFL game – Wagner’s performance could have been much worse.
He did allow a few sacks and hurries in the game and was a liability on the right side at times, but also provided some reassurance of what he can do positively in certain situations.
If Wagner were to have played right tackle for the Ravens instead of Oher for the entire 2013 season, the results would not have been any worse – or perhaps even as bad – as what Oher provided.
Long term, Wagner has the tools to start for an NFL team, and that could come as soon as Week 1 of this season with the Ravens.
It’s highly unlikely Wagner enters training camp with the sparse competition he faces now – and it would behoove the Ravens to bring in quality veteran competition.
That said, Wagner has what it takes to win the job, and if he does, contrary to popular opinion, he may not be such a bad option for the Ravens.