Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly a real 1-2 punch

Posted Sep 5, 2013

When the Seahawks play the Panthers in their season opener on Sunday, the game will feature the middle linebackers who finished 1-2 in voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season: Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner.

As Dan Morgan sits in his office at Virginia Mason Athletic Center studying video, the images flashing across the screen look more than just a little familiar.

The object of his attention – and admiration – is the tackling machine who plays middle linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, just as Morgan did during four very-productive seasons (2002-05). But this middle linebacker is Luke Kuechly, the ninth pick overall in last year’s NFL Draft – two spots higher than Morgan was selected in 2001 by the Panthers.

Later in the day, as Morgan walks the sideline during the Seahawks’ practice in his capacity as assistant director of pro personnel, the player that repeatedly catches his eye is Bobby Wagner – the team’s second-round draft choice out of Utah State last year who finished second to Kuechly in voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Kuechly? Or Wagner? Wagner? Or Kuechly? Both will be on the field at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, when the Panthers host the Seahawks in their regular-season opener. And who better than Morgan to weigh-in on this matchup of marquee middle men?

“I’d say Bobby has a more all-around game than Luke has, as far as using his hands and being able to play off blocks,” Morgan said. “But when Luke is left free, when you don’t block him, he’s going to make the play. He just has a really good feel and instincts that help him shoot gaps.

“They’re both excellent football players. They’re both in the very top of their category. But they’re different players, even different body types. And the difference is that Bobby’s a better athlete where Luke is just that instinctive guy. He’s going to see it and go get it.”

Connect the dots between the numbers these two put up during their rookie seasons and you get the picture on just how impactful they can be.

The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Kuechly led the NFL with 164 tackles, including an apropos 10 games with double-digit tackles, with six of those coming in a six-game stretch at midseason. He also had two interceptions and a sack.

The 6-foot, 241-pound Wagner set a Seahawks rookie record with 140 tackles, including six games with double-digit tackles and another eight with at least eight – including both playoff games. Wagner also had three interceptions and two sacks.

Which brings us back to that original quandary: Kuechly? Or Wagner? Wagner? Or Kuechly? And again, who better to comment than Morgan? He was named to the all-rookie team in 2001 while playing strong-side linebacker. He moved into the middle in 2002, producing 66 tackles that first season; 90 in 2003; a career-high 109 in 2004, when he was voted to the Pro Bowl; and 90 during the 2005 season that saw the Panthers meet the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game.

Morgan (pictured left) on Kuechly: “Luke has special instincts. His motor is just relentless. Plays with a ton of energy and passion. He’s just all over the place out there. He’s smart. Looking at him coming out of Boston College, you saw the same instincts, the same smarts and that constantly going motor. So I think that’s what makes him special, he can anticipate things and close on things. He’s a pretty special linebacker.”

Morgan on Wagner: “Bobby finds the ball really well, too, and he plays with his hands really well. He’s just a great athlete. Bobby’s a guy who sees it, can run things down and play sideline to sideline. And he’s also strong in between the tackles taking on blocks. So I’d say Bobby has a more all-around game than Luke has, as far as using his hands and being able to play off blocks. That’s what makes Bobby special, he can do everything. He literally can do everything.”

Sounds like one of those situations where you can’t lose.

The Panthers obviously are happy with Kuechly.

“He’s a very humble young man, so I’ll just do it for him and tell you he has the opportunity to ascend,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera, another former NFL linebacker, told “If he continues to grow, we most certainly will talk about him in the same vein as some of those great linebackers.”

The Seahawks just as obviously feel they got a steal in the second round with Wagner.

“Bobby’s loaded with talent,” veteran linebacker Heath Farwell said. “His instincts are unreal. But I think where he’s really picked his game up is this offseason he did a lot of work on studying and just understanding concepts – the stuff that a great middle linebacker does.

“He had the talent last year. He had the intensity. But now he has the confidence to be the leader in the huddle. We’re expecting big things. I’m hoping he’s going to have a Pro Bowl-type year.” 

This isn’t their first matchup, as the Seahawks also played the Panthers in Charlotte last season – when Wagner had a sack and another tackle for loss in a 16-12 victory; and Kuechly had a game-high 11 tackles and an interception. And that wasn’t their introduction to one another.

“I got to know Luke. I worked out with him in Florida before the draft,” Wagner said. “So I got to know him and we’re actually cool friends.”

Not to mention very-cool middle linebackers who will renew their very friendly rivalry on Sunday.

“It’s definitely going to be a cool deal,” Wagner said. “He won Defensive Rookie of the Year, and I felt like I could have won it, too. So it’s an opportunity to see who the next best up-and-coming young linebacker is.”

Kuechly? Or Wagner? Wagner? Or Kuechly?

“He’s Clark Kent,” rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei told when asked about Kuechly. “It’s a privilege to play with him.”

Offered Farwell, “Kuechly is a heckuva player. But Bobby is just a good, instinctual player. He’s got the speed. He’s explosive. He’s what you want in a middle linebacker.”