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Wagner waging his campaign
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For starters, there are Luke Kuechly and Lavote David. There’s also Chandler Jones and Casey Hayward. And don’t forget Harrison Smith.
But there seems to be something – someone – missing in the ongoing discussion about who should be the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. And that would be Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks’ middle linebacker and leading tackler.
Bobby Wagner already has the fifth-highest number of tackles by a rookie in franchise history and with four games remaining also has plenty of time to move up the list. Here’s a look at the players who rank ahead of him:
Before you think this is just some Bobby-come-lately push, check Wagner’s rookie resume compared to the other candidates:
Kuechly, a linebacker for the Carolina Panthers and ninth pick overall in April’s NFL Draft, is among the league leaders with 114 tackles. But Wagner has almost as many tackles (100) and one more sack (two) than Kuechly.
David, a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has almost as many tackles (98) as Wagner and 17 of his have been for losses. But Wagner also has an interception.
Jones, a defensive end for the New England Patriots, has six sacks. But that’s not even tops among NFL rookies – the Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin has seven – and Jones is ranked 12th on his own team in tackles (34).
Hayward, a cornerback for the Green Bay Packers, leads all NFL rookies in interceptions with five. But Wagner has more tackles in the past five games (50) than Hayward has all season (41).
Smith, a safety for the Minnesota Vikings, has 74 tackles and has returned one of his two interceptions for a touchdown. But Wagner tops that by 26 tackles and has those two sacks.
And, Wagner is the middle of everything on a defense that ranks No. 4 in the NFL entering Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field. The Vikings are 13th; the Panthers 14th; the Packers 15th; the Patriots 26th; and the Bucs 30th.
So quarterback Russell Wilson isn’t the only rookie on the Seahawks’ roster who has played himself into consideration for postseason honors, and Wagner might even have a stronger case when you consider the circumstances and the situation.
“That’s what’s funny,” veteran linebacker and special teams standout Heath Farwell said. “At the start of the season, I kept telling people, ‘The two most important people are the quarterback of the offense and the quarterback of the defense, and both are rookies and they never started a game in the NFL.’
“So the way I looked it was, ‘How are they going to be in 16 weeks?’ Now that we’re getting close to that, each of them has just gotten better each week.”
Wagner won’t go there when it comes to comparing his impact on the 7-5 Seahawks to that of Wilson.
“The situation is similar, but obviously the guy with the ball is going to get talked about more and I feel he’s under the ’scope a little more than I am just because he has the ball all the time,” Wagner said.
But when the other team has the ball, it’s Wagner who deserves to be talked about more than he has been. The second-round draft choice from Utah State has four games with double-digit tackles, and they’ve come in some of the team’s most-impressive wins – 14 against the Patriots; 10 in last week’s upset of the Bears in Chicago; 10 more against the Vikings; and 12 in the Week 8 loss to the Lions in Detroit.
Half of Wagner’s tackles have come in the past five games, an indication of how his game has continued to evolve – and improve – the deeper he has gone into his rookie season.
“Bobby’s had an exceptional year,” Farwell said. “To step in and start at that position right away as a rookie is pretty impressive, but to play as exceptionally well as he has is a sign that every week he has continued to learn and get better.”
Wagner did arrive with expectations. “When you drafted somebody that high – in the second round – we expect him to be an impact player,” linebackers coach Ken Norton said. “And he has been that.”
But, truth be told, Wagner’s impact – and improvement – happened even more quickly than expected after the Seahawks made him the 47th pick in the draft. He was selected that high because the team was not planning to re-sign three-time leading tackler David Hawthorne in free agency. Instead, they signed a veteran in free agency (Barrett Ruud) and drafted a middle linebacker (Wagner).
Wagner never really gave Ruud a chance to compete for the job, and Ruud was traded to the New Orleans Saints in August. Once Wagner moved into the middle, it didn’t take long for him to start making the defensive calls in the huddle and move into the nickel defense. Now, he rarely comes off the field.
“I think Bobby has been really a big plus for us on the positive side,” coach Pete Carroll said. “We didn’t know how he would do as he took over a big role.”
Wagner hasn’t been perfect, of course. Stepping in at middle linebacker as a rookie comes with growing pains, and for Wagner those have included the occasional misfit in the running game that has led to long runs. But the good thing about Wagner is that he has learned from his mistakes, and rarely makes the same one twice.
“Every week, he’s continued to learn and get better,” Farwell said. “Every week he’s getting better. He’s been able to grow as a player. He has the utmost potential.”
Wagner’s first regular-season game was against the Cardinals in Arizona in the season opener. The Cardinals will see a different player on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
“I definitely feel like I’m far from where I was when I first played this team the first time,” Wagner said. “Things have definitely slowed down for me. I’ve got a good feel for what offenses, for the most part, are trying to do to attack us.
“I’m just more comfortable out there.”
And that, of course, means Wagner has been making things increasingly uncomfortable for the opposition.