Allen Park – Rick Wagner got paid.
The Detroit Lions’ new right tackle has redefined the salary scale for his position, and he’s certainly not complaining after inking a five-year deal that has the potential to be worth close to $50 million. But money isn’t the only thing that lured Wagner to Detroit. The Wisconsin native is a Midwesterner and was drawn by the opportunity to return to the region.
“I grew up in the Midwest and just the way it’s blue-collar, it really connects with me,” Wagner said. “I’m a real quiet, laid-back kind of guy. I’ve always had to work for everything. I was never given anything.”
Wagner’s work ethic has helped him routinely exceed expectations. Coming out of high school, he declined scholarship offers from smaller schools to walk-on at Wisconsin. With football not a realistic career at the time, he wanted to make sure he had a quality education to fall back on.
But after redshirting his freshman year for the Badgers, he steadily improved, eventually earning the team’s starting left tackle job as a senior.
That got him a shot in the NFL, but as the final pick in the fifth round, few could have anticipated he’d develop into one of the league’s best players at his position. But with the tutelage of Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo, Wagner transformed from a lumbering Wisconsin run blocker into a technically sound pass protector.
“He was a really big influence on me,” Wagner said. “I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to play for him and he just was really into the fundamentals and that’s the most important thing about playing O-line is the fundamentals, especially in pass protection.”
Now Wagner will be charged with protecting Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has absorbed a lot of abuse from his right side in recent years. Even with Riley Reiff bringing some stability to the right tackle spot last season, after multiple years of rotating players in the role, the position was conservatively to blame for five sacks in 2016.
Sticking with all he knows, Wagner is ready to prove himself worthy of the task.
“I walked on at Wisconsin, was drafted with the last pick of the fifth round, so I’ve had to prove myself,” Wagner said. “That doesn’t stop here. I have to prove to everybody that I actually do, I actually have to earn this contract. I’m very thankful for this opportunity to let that happen.”
If Wagner can simply play to the level he did last year in Baltimore, the Lions would probably feel pretty good about the decision to bring him aboard. An above-average run blocker and exceptional pass protector, Wagner was graded as one of the best players at his position by analytics web site Pro Football Focus.
It was important for Wagner after struggling through the 2015 campaign, hindered by lingering issues from surgery to repair a lisfranc injury.
“I guess coming off a serious foot injury that year, it was kind of difficult to get back into the swing of things,” Wagner said. “I think I recovered well toward the end of that season. As of last year, I think I’m back on the right track, playing solid football.”
Beyond the money, and the chance to come back to the Midwest, Wagner is happy to reconnect with Jim Caldwell. The Lions coach was serving as the Ravens offensive coordinator Wagner’s rookie season.
“He made a big impact on me as a young guy,” Wagner. “I really think he’s truly one of the best people I met, as a man, in the football world. I’m really excited to get to play with him again.”
With Wagner in tow, the Lions need to figure out what they’re doing at right guard. As it currently stands, Laken Tomlinson and Joe Dahl will compete for the job. But the team is also reportedly making a play for Packers free agent T.J. Lang.
Wagner is able to do a lot of things, but he’s going to sit out pitching Lang on joining him in Detroit.
“I’m not really involved with that,” Wagner said. “I’m leaving Detroit today, so I’m just here to meet all the coaches, get to know their staff, familiarize myself with everybody here.”