(AP) — Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Rick Wagner says the decision to sign with his home-state team was easy.
The challenge Wagner now faces is much more difficult.
Wagner is attempting to bounce back from a down season while making sure the Packers don’t take a step back at right tackle, a position that Bryan Bulaga filled capably for the last decade.
“It’s a true honor getting to play here,” Wagner said. “I love the state of Wisconsin. I never want to leave.”
Wagner, 30, was born and raised in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis and developed from walk-on at Wisconsin to NFL draft pick.
Although Wagner says the only Green Bay games he attended as a fan were a couple of preseason contests, he grew up rooting for the Packers and remembers seeking autographs during childhood trips to training camp.
“I remember getting a couple o-linemen, I don’t know,” Wagner said. “Nobody too big, I don’t think. No Brett Favres or anything. Just a couple linemen like me.”
The 2013 fifth-round draft pick has spent the last six seasons as a starting right tackle, first with the Baltimore Ravens (2014-16) and later with the Detroit Lions (2017-19). He’s the apparent front-runner to replace Bulaga.
Wagner agreed to a two-year deal worth $11 million with a $3.5 million signing bonus, according to Spotrac, which reported that the Chargers gave Bulaga a three-year contract worth $30 million with a $10 million signing bonus.
Wagner not only had a bad 2019 season with the Lions, he had to deal with a knee injury and missed four games. The Lions released him in a cost-cutting move after the season.
Pro Football Focus gave Wagner a career-low grade of 59 last season after he typically had graded out at 70 or better for most of his years as a starter.
“Every year, you have to go back and look at your film,” Wagner said. “Everything has to be improved every year. You either get better or you get worse. You don’t really stay the same.”
Packers coach Matt LaFleur acknowledges that Wagner “did battle through some stuff last year” and that “I think you could see it toward the end of last season.” But LaFleur added that Wagner’s career track record suggests he can bounce back.
“There’s a lot of tape of him out there, and he’s done a pretty darn good job,” LaFleur said. “There’s a reason he’s started for so many seasons now.”
Wagner still must win this job. The Packers do have other possibilities at right tackle.
Billy Turner is the incumbent starter at right guard, but he also has four career starts at right tackle. Lane Taylor has 49 career starts - including 46 at left guard and two at right guard - and is returning from a biceps injury that limited him to two games last season.
That gives Green Bay the option of putting Taylor at guard and sliding Turner over to right tackle.
“Ultimately it’s about finding the best five that fit together,” LaFleur said.
Wagner wants to show he belongs among that five. While the pandemic-imposed attendance restrictions at Lambeau Field might make this homecoming different than anyone could have imagined, Wagner still can’t wait to suit up for the team he cheered on as a kid.
“The Packers are one of the most respected teams in the league. and I always respected them as a player on a different team,” Wagner said. “And just growing up in the state, I know that this is a special place. (I) grew up a Packer fan and continued to follow them over the last eight years, so it was a pretty easy decision to come here, and I’m very happy to be here.”