Could James Hurst compete with Rick Wagner for starting job?
Arguably the biggest winner coming out of the 2014 NFL draft was second-year right tackle Rick Wagner.
With offensive tackle seen as a primary need to address this offseason, the Ravens did not take a top target in the first three rounds, and ultimately passed on one throughout. The initial reaction was that the right tackle job would then be handed to Wagner, a standout tackle at Wisconsin during his collegiate days.
(Discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Then the Ravens quickly signed a few undrafted free agent linemen, one of which being North Carolina tackle James Hurst. The signing raised quite a few eyebrows, as it was a bit strange that Hurst went from being a projected second-round pick to completely falling out of the draft.
But then again, that’s what can happen if you can’t work out at the Senior Bowl or NFL combine. Hurst missed those events because he was nursing a broken leg, sustained at the worst possible time — during North Carolina’s Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati. He did work out at his Pro Day on March 25, but that might have been too late to make a dent in the evaluation process.
Wagner has had a year of NFL experience, but this will be a different system in 2014 for the Ravens on offense. Linemen will be expected to widen their stances, space out more along the line and use their athleticism to block their zone assignments. The zone blocking schemes employed last year are fairly different from what Gary Kubiak likes the run — which is basically now going to be outside zone runs.
In a 2011 game against Ohio State, the Badgers ran some outside plays, with Wagner in action. Here’s an example of how he played them:
As you see, Wagner misses his man out in front, a whiff if you will. His teammates didn’t exactly help him out as Montee Ball was stuffed near the line of scrimmage anyway. He didn’t look particularly agile or athletic on the play, which would be a bit concerning since quickness, footwork and fundamentals are focal points in the new blocking scheme.
Wagner pulls and gets to his man on the outside, looking a bit slow in the process. He executes a pull to get the next level on the opposite side he lined up on. But Ball is stuffed short in a game against a tough Ohio State defense — again, blame Wagner’s former teammates.
This is clearly a small sample size on Wagner and shouldn’t diminish anything he’s done to improve his play in his first year with the Ravens.
Hurst had a lot of experience in an offense that dealt mainly out of the shotgun so there weren’t too many outside zone or stretch plays. As a pass-protector, Hurst has fared pretty well and did a pretty good job blocking Jadeveon Clowney in last year’s game against South Carolina. His run blocking will be a concern, given he doesn’t have any sort of familiarity with the kind of scheme Kubiak will use.
But for offensive linemen at this level, it’s not too hard to pick up on. It’s a matter of applying it to the kind of athleticism one puts out on the field.
Any sort of excitement with Hurst potentially snagging the right tackle job is probably premature. Wagner should receive most of the first-team reps at the position during offseason workouts and will have to lose the job to Hurst, at least in my opinion. Wagner may not be an ideal option at this time because not much is known about how he’ll hold up in the NFL. But at least he has some NFL offensive line experience.
Time will tell with these two players. And who knows? Maybe the Ravens go outside the box and bring someone in via free agency if they don’t like the way it looks with either tackle.
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Jason Butt is a writer and analyst for Baltimore Sports and Life. He also covers the Ravens for SB Nation as the Managing Editor of Baltimore Beatdown . Additionally, Jason is a freelancer in the D.C./Baltimore area, with published works appearing in The Washington Post, Express, CBSSports.com, The Associated Press and The Washington Times. He graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor of arts in journalism in 2009.