Considering Rick Wagner's development into one of the best young right tackles in the NFL a season ago, the Ravens' curtain-raiser in Denver on Sunday represents a chance to compare the player he's grown into with the one he debuted at Sports Authority Stadium two years ago.
Wagner played nearly 60 snaps as an in-game replacement for the injured Michael Oher at right tackle in the 49-27 loss at the Broncos that kicked off the 2013 season.
The rookie fifth-round pick allowed three sacks and four quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus data. He played sparingly the rest of the season, but said the lessons from that night informed his later success, and used it as motivation going forward.
"I just think I learned a lot from it," the 25-year-old Wagner said. "[That's] really nothing you can prepare for. A practice is not the same as a game, so sometimes you need a few times to really improve. I think it ended up as a good thing for me, kind of getting thrown into the fire. But that's two years ago. That's a lifetime ago in the NFL."
More recently in Wagner's NFL life, he took over for Oher full-time in 2014 and formed a powerful combination on the right side of the Ravens offensive line with mainstay guard Marshal Yanda. Running back Justin Forsett frequently followed the right side of his line for big gains, and many of his league-leading 17 runs of 20 yards or more came behind Wagner.
"I think that Rick's proven, definitely, to be a player in this league and I think he's going to continue to do that," Yanda said. "He had a great year last year and we expect great things out of him. He's doing a good job. Everybody starts [like he did]. You don't worry about that. That was two years ago."
Pro Football Focus rated him one of the league's best right tackles in 2014, though his ascension to reliable starter status was halted in Week 16 last season against the Houston Texans, when a Lisfranc foot sprain ended his season.
The Ravens brought Wagner along slowly in training camp, and he called his first game in Denver since his debut "a good opportunity to kind of prove to people I can come back off injury."
It will be as good a test as he'll get all season — in a game, at least.
Each day in practice, it's Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs lined up opposite Wagner. On Sunday, it will be the league's third-best sack duo from 2014, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Last season, Miller was the one who typically rushed from the left side of the defense, meaning Wagner could draw the three-time All-Pro often Sunday.
"Going against Dumervil and Suggs every day, there's not too many better rushers than them in the NFL, so I kind of get a head start for these elite rushers like Von Miller," Wagner said.