Pro Football Focus grades Rick Wagner as the top right tackle in football and the fifth best offensive tackle overall.
Pro Football Focus grades Rick Wagner as the top right tackle in football and the fifth best offensive tackle overall. (Evan Habeeb, USA Today Sports)

For a team that couldn't afford any missteps in the rebuilding of its offensive line, going from an established veteran at right tackle to an unproven second-year player seemed like a huge risk.

Though he was much-maligned by fans, Michael Oher started 90 consecutive games for the Ravens, battling weekly against some of the game's top pass rushers. Rick Wagner was a fifth-round pick in 2013 and in his only extensive game action as a rookie he was beaten for three sacks by Denver Broncos linebacker Shaun Phillips.

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However, when free agency began in March, the Ravens didn't aggressively pursue re-signing Oher, who accepted a four-year, $20 million contract from the Tennessee Titans. They gave Wagner every opportunity to seize the job, and he's done more than that.

As the Ravens (5-4) prepare to play the Titans (2-6) Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium, Wagner has emerged as one of the team's biggest bright spots and graded out as one of the top tackles in the league.

"The thing that jumps out at me is his consistency," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Wagner. "He executes the techniques exactly the way the scheme calls for. He gets it right [almost] all the time. If he does get beat like anybody does at times, it's physically. And that doesn't happen very often. He's playing very well. He's done a good job."

So good that a couple of outlets have included Wagner on their midseason Pro Bowl teams.

Pro Football Focus, an analytics site, has him graded as the top right tackle in football and the fifth best offensive tackle overall. The four tackles graded above him — Joe Thomas, Jason Peters, Branden Albert and Andrew Whitworth — have been selected to the Pro Bowl a total of 15 times. Oher, on the other hand, is ranked 71st out of 74 graded tackles, and his run blocking has been frequently criticized.

"It's definitely a big confidence boost," Wagner said of the accolades. "Hopefully, I can keep playing well."

In nine games this season, Wagner has played every snap and allowed just one sack and 13 hurries, and he's been called for just one penalty. In eight games, Oher has been beaten for four sacks, 19 hurries, and he's been flagged five times.

"It's really hard to critique the Ravens for their offensive line decisions," said Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman who now analyzes the league for NBCSN and Sirius XM NFL Radio. "They felt Wagner would be an upgrade over Oher, and he was. They felt like [center Jeremy] Zuttah would be an upgrade over [Gino] Gradkowski and he was. They've made some really tough decisions, and they've been good decisions.

"I think [Wagner's] been fine. I think he's a better player than Michael Oher, I can tell you that much. I did the Titans' game against the Houston Texans and it was more of the same for Michael Oher: a holding penalty, a sack, a false start. I don't want to bash Michael Oher, but he really hasn't gotten any better."

Asked about Oher's play on a conference call with Baltimore-area reporters Wednesday, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt wasn't exactly effusive with praise.

"Michael has worked hard," he said. "He was a guy that we were glad to get in here with our team. We haven't played as a football team as well as we want to, so we're all working to get better. I like Michael. He's a guy that I've had a lot of respect for over the years. But as far as that goes, we as a group are trying to play better, because we haven't played anywhere well enough for us to be obviously better than what our record is."

The Ravens drafted Oher with the 23rd overall pick in the 2009 draft, and at least in fans' minds, he never fulfilled his potential. They tired of his penchant for false start penalties and lamented his inability to develop into a dominating, bookend tackle.

However, Oher's former teammates viewed things differently. They admired Oher for his toughness, work ethic and unselfishness. Oher played right tackle in his rookie season, then moved to left tackle his second year. He went back to the right side his third year and switched to the left in his fourth. He did it all without public complaint and never missed a game.

Team officials also remember how Oher played his best football during the Ravens' Super Bowl run.

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"What was he here — five years? It speaks for itself," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "Michael was a great teammate and a great player."

When Oher hit free agency in March, Ravens officials held tepid discussions with the tackle's agent about a contract. However, their offer was much lower than the one Oher got to return to his home state and play for the Titans.

"Everything happened so fast in free agency," Oher said on a conference call Wednesday. "There really wasn't enough time. I kind of thought I might be back [to Baltimore] for a second, but as soon as free agency kicked off, everything happened so fast where I got everything done right away and came down to Tennessee."

Oher was complimentary of Ravens fans and said that he's looking forward to hearing what the crowd is like from the visitor's sideline. Asked what reception he expects to get, Oher said, "I played a lot of games and won a lot of games. It shouldn't be too bad."

Oher said he has watched tape of Wagner and noticed the improvements that he has made. Wagner, in turn, said he learned a lot from backing up Oher during his rookie season, but he also knew that Oher's departure presented him with an opportunity. The Ravens also considered Jah Reid as a potential starting candidate when Oher left, but Reid never gained much traction in the competition.

"After I found out that [Oher] was leaving, that was the first thing on my mind — I have a great opportunity to take over on the right side," Wagner said. "I'm just thankful that the coaches trusted in me."

So are the players who have watched Wagner develop into a quality right tackle and an offensive line mainstay. That includes linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has given Wagner the nickname "The Salesman" because "Ever since he walked in the building, I'm like, 'that's a good salesman name.'"

"He's been working his tail off, man. I think that's a good feel-good story, definitely," Suggs said. "He's showed that he could hold his own. He's been playing phenomenal for us. You have to tip your hat off to a guy that shows up for work. Those guys in there in the trenches, they don't really get a lot of credit for the things that they do. But he's definitely been a big part of our team. I'm proud of the guy."

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