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Wagner in the middle of things
Of all the positive things that have been said about Bobby Wagner since the Seahawks selected the Utah State linebacker in the second round of the NFL Draft, perhaps the most lasting was offered by Eric Stokes.
“He’s a guy that jumps out,” the team’s assistant director of college scouting said. “He definitely jumps out.”
The Seahawks have to hope that Stokes’ assessment also is the most accurate, because they have a hole in the middle of a defense that ranked ninth in the league last season because leading tackler David Hawthorne signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency. Veteran Barrett Ruud was added in free agency, providing experience and proven production at this level. It’s Wagner, however, who has that long-term solution look.
But would the team consider starting a rookie at the pivotal middle linebacker position?
“We’re going to put him in the middle and take that spot and see how he does,” said Pete Carroll, who definitely has shown during his first two seasons as coach of the Seahawks that he’s not averse to giving rookies a shot.
Besides, there’s not just a precedent, it’s a productive precedent.
In 2005, Lofa Tatupu – who played for Carroll at USC – was the Seahawks’ second-round draft choice. He not only started as a rookie, he was the leading tackler on the franchise’s first Super Bowl team – the first of a club-record four consecutive seasons that the too-small, too-slow Tatupu would lead the Seahawks in tackles.
In 1977, Terry Beeson was a second-round draft choice, and he also led the team in tackles as a rookie – the first of three consecutive seasons Beeson would do it, including a still-franchise record 153 tackles in 1978.
In 1978, Keith Butler was selected in the second round of the draft, and he became the franchise’s all-time leading tackler by the time he left after the 1987 season (a total since surpassed by Eugene Robinson).
In 1987, Dave Wyman was the team’s second-round draft choice, and he finished second on the team in tackles in 1988 and 1989.
In 1990, Terry Wooden was selected in the second round, and he led the team in tackles in 1991 and 1995 and finished second in 1993 and 1994 – although it was as an outside ’backer.
But you get the picture; second-round linebackers have been very, very good for the Seahawks.
Wagner’s chance to show that he’s the latest in this productive line begins on Friday, when the Seahawks’ open a three-day rookie minicamp.
The club went into the draft targeting a middle linebacker, and the second round as the time to get one. They had Wagner and California’s Mychal Kendricks rated pretty even. So when Kendricks went to the Philadelphia Eagles with the 14th pick in the round, the Seahawks got their man one pick later.
And just what did they get in Wagner?
“Well,” Stokes said, “first and foremost, he’s a big-time upgrade athletically. His speed and his range are going to be very impressive and you’re getting a guy that’s really physical.
“It’s going to be a natural adjustment to middle linebacker.”
Wagner does arrive with some numbing numbers on his resume. He had 100-plus tackles in each of the past three seasons for the Aggies, including 147 last season and 29.5 for losses in his four seasons as a starter. Wagner had pneumonia at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, but at his Pro Day workout in late March he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, popped a 39½-inch vertical leap and an 11-foot board jump and did 24 reps with 225 pounds.
Need more? How about this scouting report from running back and Utah State teammate Robert Turbin, the Seahawks’ fourth-round draft choice: “He’s the best linebacker I ever went up against, to be quite honest.”
But wait, there’s more. “He’s a guy that works hard every single day,” Turbin said. “He can do a lot of different things for a guy who is 241 pounds. He is quick with his feet. He has long arms. He can jump high. He has great speed for his size. He’s very athletic.
“Because of that, and his physicality, he’ll be a great linebacker in the NFL.”
But first, Wagner will be a rookie linebacker in the NFL. One that must learn the nuances of playing the middle linebacker spot at this level, and in Carroll’s defense that is coordinated by Gus Bradley.
Don’t worry about the 6-foot Wagner wilting under the opinions that he’s too small to do what he has been doing for the past four seasons at Utah State. He’s heard it all before.
“I’m used to not listening to it,” he said. “I’m used to people saying I can’t do something and then I prove them wrong. That kind of throws it in their face a little bit.”
It hasn’t helped Wagner that he was a late arrival to the sport that is now his profession. He didn’t turn to football until his junior year at Colony High School in Ontario, Calif.
Why the delay? “I thought I was going to be the next Michael Jordan,” he said.
Wagner was a 185-pound linebacker that first season, but still earned all-league and all-CIF honors. He was an all-state Division II selection as a senior. But still, Utah State was the only school that recruited him.
“Everybody else was telling me that I sucked, so I went to the school that had faith in me,” he said.
Now, he has come to an NFL team that also has faith in him – and plans for him.
“I think it’s big,” Stokes said when asked about Wagner’s upside. “It’s as good as anybody in this draft, given especially what you’re getting from an athletic standpoint. He’s pretty special in that area.”