navigation-background arrow-down-circle Reply Icon Show More Heart Delete Icon wiki-circle wiki-square wiki arrow-up-circle add-circle add-square add arrow-down arrow-left arrow-right arrow-up calendar-circle chat-bubble-2 chat-bubble check-circle check close contact-us credit-card drag menu email embed facebook-circle facebook-square facebook faq-circle faq film gear google-circle google-square google history home instagram-circle instagram-square instagram linkedin-circle linkedin-square linkedin load monitor Video Player Play Icon person pinterest-circle pinterest-square pinterest play readlist remove-circle remove-square remove search share sign-out star trailer trash twitter-circle twitter-square twitter youtube-circle youtube-square youtube

You have to have a valid membership to attend this event

You have to have a valid membership to attend this event

Profiles In Progress: John Urschel, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Rick Wagner

September 15, 2015

In football's bottom-line world, the top of the mountain is the goal. 

It's the Super Bowl-winning teams that matter; it's the best coaches whose methods are emulated, and it's the top players who collect those impressive individual honors, such as Most Valuable Player awards, and the lucrative endorsements that naturally follow.

But, amid the constant emphasis placed on top-level players, something that can get lost is recognition of a player's genuine value -- even if they never come close to being most valuable.

In the Ravens' relatively brief history, the team's front office has shown a keen eye for the highest-value selections in the NFL Draft. And there's plenty of evidence that illustrates the team certainly knows how to pick talent that's generally regarded to be among the best of a draft class. The Ravens' first-round picks account for: 56 Pro Bowl berths, 13 All-Rookie Team selections, four Defensive Player of the Year honors and two Super Bowl MVP trophies.

However, those first-rounders had impressive resumes before becoming Ravens, and like most first-rounders, their success was almost expected.

Meanwhile, there has been a total of 162 players selected by the Ravens during their 20 drafts, and the great majority of them didn't get a hug from the NFL commissioner or a five-minute Mel Kiper Jr. skill-set soliloquy. Instead, their welcomes to the NFL were bulging playbooks and screaming coaches. And, often, after they became Ravens, they got an infusion of a work ethic that made them better.

In the case of many of these players, the Ravens drilled value into them and made them realize how valuable their own hard work could be.

This season, the Ravens' approach of elevating players taken deep in the NFL draft -- and even some who went undrafted completely -- to being part of a roster capable of climbing the NFL's mountain top is evident in three key players.

Taliaferro: Diamond in the Rough

Three of the team's recent draftees -- guard/center John Urschel, running back Lorenzo Taliaferro and tackle Rick Wagner -- are simply the latest in a long line of previously unheralded players who have become important cogs in the team's machine.

Issue 2013: Cover: Lorenzo Taliaferro, John Urschel, Rick Wagner
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Wagner (fifth round, 2013) is a starter at right offensive tackle; Urschel (fifth round, 2014) is a solid offensive line backup, who has shown the ability to answer the bell as a starter, and Taliaferro (fourth round, 2014) is developing into a promising member of the running back corps.

In fact, the three have become so important, news of their various preseason injuries has caused almost as much concern among fans as would the absence of any star player.

Taliaferro's problem was a knee ligament sprain, Urschel suffered a concussion and Wagner has been working his way back from foot surgery. Still, they are all expected to be major contributors during the regular season.

"What separates late-round guys from everyone else is the initiative," player personnel head/assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "[It's the] drive, mental intelligence, durability, toughness, passion for the game, being a team guy, leadership.

"All those qualities make those guys better than they are. These guys have the same potential to develop as anyone else."

Taliaferro, who played in college at Coastal Carolina, seemed to suffer the most serious ailment, a knee ligament sprain incurred during the second preseason game at Philadelphia Aug. 22. The initial forecast of missing a few weeks might have seemed a bit ambiguous, but if it holds true, the 6-foot, 225-pounder is likely to be back sometime during the first several games of the season.

That should give Taliaferro, who was a little leaner and quicker in training camp, another chance to contribute to a run-first scheme that can utilize his between-the-tackles, one-cut running talent, his pass-catching skills and his maturing blitz-pickup game.

Ravens 2015: Lorenzo Taliaferro (training camp, intros)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

The Ravens' philosophy involves walking a fine line between being fast and being tough, and Taliaferro has learned to be both.

"[I like] their tempo, and their way of letting everyone know that they have to be ready for their opportunity," Taliaferro said. "The guys with the most experience are the ones that have been flourishing for years, but [you have to] be ready, because you never know when opportunity comes.

"They seemingly never panic. They get a lot of guys [fans have] never heard of. The way they work, you have no choice but to follow in their footsteps."

Taliaferro is the epitome of the phrase "diamond in the rough." In just two seasons at lesser-known Coastal Carolina, he ran for more than 2,000 yards and scored 32 touchdowns, earning kudos as one of the top offensive players in the competitive Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).

"We did a good job my two years there," Taliaferro said. "We went the furthest in [school] history. We broke numerous records. My team opened that door for me. They put us on the map. It was a relentless drive. Coming from a small school, I knew I had to work hard, and I did."

Last season as an NFL rookie, after carrying the ball 68 times, scoring four touchdowns and proving to be a powerful addition to the Ravens' short-yardage offense, Taliaferro ran into the rookie wall -- foot-first.

A foot injury sidelined Taliaferro for the final three regular-season games and two postseason contests, prompting an extensive offseason fitness regimen that dropped just enough weight and redistributed his power and balance throughout his frame, so that he could contribute in more varied ways. The Ravens listed him at 6-foot, 225 pounds.

"In year two, he understands what's expected of him," running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. "He knows how to work. He's had a great offseason. He's definitely quicker. He studied. He watched film, and he has a better understanding of his role in the offense."

Urschel: Toughness With Smarts

Because of the Ravens' passion for physicality, injuries sometimes happen through hustle and enthusiasm. Taliaferro's injury came after a collision with a teammate while trying to make a tackle after an interception. Similarly, Urschel's concussion came in the middle of a pileup while blocking on a running play on the practice field. Urschel, who played at Penn State, lay on the field for several minutes before being helped to the sideline.

But even when he was stunned, the two-time Academic All-American was smart enough to know riding off in a cart would not project the tough image the Ravens want their players and team to have. Urschel need not have worried, for he had already earned his bona fides in 2014.

Ravens 2015: John Urschel (Diving)
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Urschel started two games at left guard and three more at right guard, earning enough confidence from the coaching staff that the Ravens started Urschel at right guard for two playoff games, which allowed four-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to play right tackle for the injured Wagner. This year, Urschel will get an extensive look at center, backing up veteran NFL starter Jeremy Zuttah.

Ravens offensive line coach Juan Castillo was certainly pleased to see Urschel -- who has published peer-reviewed articles on mathematics -- take extra time after practice to attack schemes and techniques the way he devours a math textbook.

"I think it takes a little of everything," Castillo said. "You have to be smart, but you have to be physical. There are lots of smart linemen that can't play, because they're not athletic enough.

"You have to be athletic enough, but you have to be smart. If you're smart and you're not athletic enough, you're not going to play, and vice versa. That's the big thing the Ravens' organization does -- they find kids that fit all three."

It's no surprise that, for Urschel, the equation is a little more complex. It's not just about being smart, being athletic and getting to play. It's also about confidence.

"I don't think I have the best physical skill set," Urschel said. "But I'm a hard worker. I'm tough, and I'm smart. I think those are good qualities to have in an interior offensive lineman, and I think that really comes into its own when you're looking at later-round draft picks."

With offensive linemen, it's also about controlling the small piece of ground known as the line of scrimmage. Brains aside, DeCosta knew Urschel was big enough (he's 6-foot-3, 308 pounds) and had a low-enough base to control any area he inhabits.

"With Urschel, we knew he was a smart guy," DeCosta said. "But we knew he had versatility to play center and guard, saw quickness, the speed, the strength, the skill-set, good lower-body, intelligent, self-motivated [and got] excellent comments from people at the school.

"We saw a player we could develop, and his transition from college to the NFL has been pretty significant."

Wagner: Offensive Line Difference Maker

With a background in the Big Ten Conference and a 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame, there's no doubt the strong, rangy Wagner could probably help anyone climb a mountain if he were so inclined. But last year, Wagner's contribution helped the Ravens get closer to the summit than anyone thought they could get.

Ravens 2014: Rick Wagner, Joe Flacco
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

Offensive line play is critical in so many ways. Not only does an effective O-line help the offense maintain ball control and wear down the opposing defense, it also allows its own defense to save strength for the fourth quarters of games.

One year ago, the Ravens' offensive line was perhaps the team's biggest question mark. Coming off an 8-8 season in 2013 that featured a franchise-record low running attack that was one of the league's worst, the durable Michael Oher, a former first-round pick, departed during free agency for the Tennessee Titans. That left a gaping hole at right tackle.

These days, the Ravens can look back at a 2014 campaign that saw the team post franchise-record highs in yards and points, complete with a running game that saw running back Justin Forsett scamper for big gains after picking out holes made for him on the right side -- something predecessors, such as Jamal Lewis and Willis McGahee, rarely did.

Wagner was a big reason for that, teaming with Yanda to not only open holes for Forsett, but to keep quarterback Joe Flacco upright to the tune of 19 sacks, the league's second-fewest.

In addition, Oher's double-digit penalty seasons became a thing of the past. Wagner was flagged for two false starts while starting 15 games, according to Football Database. He missed the regular-season finale and postseason with a foot injury that required surgery.

Wagner, a veteran of 51 career games at Wisconsin, reappeared in this year's preseason opener against New Orleans Aug. 13 and played every down of a 16-play drive put together by the first-string offense that resulted in a touchdown.

"Attitude. That's the key," Castillo said. "Players want to learn, to be smart, wanting to work hard. They pick up things quickly, and they trust their technique in the games.

"As coaches, we do the technique part of it. The big thing is the work ethic and wanting to work."

As much as general manager Ozzie Newsome treasures his franchise's devotion to a strong work ethic, he credits the players' backgrounds as well.

"In the case of [Urschel and Wagner], you knew you had two players who competed at a high level as starters in the Big Ten for several years," Newsome said. "That says something about them right away. They both are smart and tested well on the intelligence side. That tells us that they can figure out how to play at this level.

"[Taliaferro, Urschel and Wagner] showed they could assimilate and communicate. That tells you they could be taught."

In a bottom-line business, it is exactly that type of player evaluation that has helped keep the Ravens near the top.

Joe Platania has been covering professional football since 1994.

Issue 213: September 2015