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Former Packers guard T.J. Lang on Bryan Bulaga successor Rick Wagner: 'Give the guy a chance'

Ryan Wood   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - At an Italian restaurant next to Ford Field, T.J. Lang saw his post-Green Bay Packers football career start to materialize.

There was general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Jim Caldwell. And a “quiet, sheltered, red-plushy faced, kind of nervous energy” offensive tackle the Lions were also trying to woo.

His name was Rick Wagner.

“For me, it was a big part of me coming to Detroit,” Lang told PackersNews this week, “was knowing that I was going to be playing next to another good right tackle. I didn’t want to go anywhere where I was going to have to play next to a journeyman or a young guy. I wanted to kind of go and keep the same sort of relationship with a right tackle that was a good player.

“If Rick wouldn’t have signed in Detroit, I’m not sure I would have. Because I didn’t really feel like there was the stability at right tackle that I wanted to play next to.”

Lang played the final two seasons of his Pro Bowl career with Wagner lined up directly to his right. Just as he shared an offensive line with Bryan Bulaga for most of his career. If there’s anyone to ask about the transition the Packers will undergo after selecting Wagner to replace Bulaga this week, it’s Lang.

The Packers signed Wagner this week to a two-year, $11 million contract, returning the Wisconsin native to his home state. His return mitigates the loss of Bulaga, who ended his decade as right tackle in Green Bay when he signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers.

The difference in those contracts is no coincidence.

While Lang counts both as “great friends,” he also recognizes they have different stature in the NFL. Bulaga, Lang said, is “a top three right tackle” in the league. Wagner, Lang said, watched a lot of film on Bulaga, someone he revered and tried to emulate.

“I don’t want anybody to think that I’m comparing the two,” Lang said, “because I’m not. Obviously, I had a tremendously long relationship with Bryan, and I think he’s one of the best to ever play the right tackle position in Green Bay. I think if people are expecting Rick to kind of be at the same level, I think that might be a little unfair.

“But give the guy a chance, man. Trust him, and let him go in there and compete, do his job. He’s going to reward you for that.”

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Lang said Wagner’s ability to diagnose a play before and after the snap reminds him of Bulaga. What he lacked in athleticism — “Not saying Rick is a slouch,” Lang said, “Bryan is just one of a kind” — he could compensate with smarts. In the former Badger, the Packers are getting a veteran who has played a long time in the NFL. Wagner, a fifth-round pick by Baltimore in 2013, has started 87 of 102 games in his seven-year career.

He’s seen enough to know how to handle himself in the run and pass game.

“I don’t think I ever went into a play, or post play,” Lang said, “kind of looking at either one of them, going, like, ‘What the hell were you doing, man?’ They’re very smart guys, very football savvy, high football IQ.”

For Wagner, success hinges on confidence. When Wagner is playing well, Lang said, he’s playing really well. The right environment helps him to that place. Naturally biased — Lang still has good friends on the Packers offensive line — Lang believes Wagner is finding the right environment in Green Bay.

Wagner will join an offensive line filled mostly with veterans, very different than the group he and Lang joined in Detroit. Aside from Wagner and Lang, that Lions offensive line entered the 2017 season with none of their other three starters playing more than three seasons. Together, the young trio had combined for 84 starts and 103 games in their career.

In Green Bay, Wagner will join an offensive line with three of the four other starters playing at least six seasons. Together, those three starters (David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, Billy Turner) have combined for 233 starts and 248 games.

That assortment of veteran experience should be ideal for Wagner, Lang said. Bulaga was never the most vocal leader, even late in his career, but he could be vocal when necessary. Lang said Wagner is naturally quiet, almost awkwardly quiet, something his linemates in Detroit showed no hesitation ncy to poke fun at.

“Bryan was more kind of a quiet, work-type guy,” Lang said, “but not quiet enough where you would ever shut down and have to pry words out of his mouth. Bryan was kind of more, I don’t know the word I’m looking for, just quiet on purpose. When he has to talk, he can talk. When Rick has to talk, it’s like almost painful watching him go through a press conference. It’s just uncomfortable when he turns to blush a little bit, turn a little red.”

Wagner should find no shortage of comfort in his return home. Not only is the former West Allis Hale alum returning to the state where he began his football journey, but Lang believes Wagner is returning at an ideal time.

There are certain pressures attached to an NFL player returning to his home-state team, something Lang, who grew up in a north Detroit suburb, learned when he signed with the Lions. Ticket requests and other demands on time are more intense than they otherwise would be. For a young player, it can be overwhelming.

For Wagner, who will turn 31 in October, Lang believes he’s grounded enough in his career to handle the new reality.

“I tell everybody,” Lang said, “if I would’ve gotten drafted by the Lions, I think I would have had a harder time. just because being a young, 21-year-old and having to handle all the requests from family and friends, that can be overwhelming. I think by the time I came home, I kind of set the parameters and boundaries of what people were allowed to expect as far as ticket-wise and all that.

“I think he’s going to love being home, man. I think it’s a lot like me, where when I was in Wisconsin for eight years, I wasn’t far from home. It’s only a seven-hour drive, a 45-minute flight, but you miss a lot of time with your family. I think everybody was like that. So Rick being in Baltimore for a few years and Detroit for a few years, I think is going to give him a chance to go home and be closer to family and friends. I think that’s one of his characteristics and foundations, is just being around his family. I think that’s going to be important for him. Ffrom talking to him a little bit the last couple days, I think he’s excited about it.”

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