By Chris Cluff
Bobby Wagner: LB #54
Hometown: Los Angeles
College: Utah State
In 2005, Mike Holmgren’s Seahawks drafted an undersized linebacker in the second round and watched as he quickly assimilated into the defense and the pro game, ending up in the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Seven years later, the Seahawks seem to have found the next Lofa Tatupu. Whether Bobby Wagner makes the Pro Bowl as a rookie remains to be seen (Tatupu had a team-leading 104 tackles, with four sacks and three interceptions, as a rookie), but he has been every bit as quick a study as Tatupu was.
The Seahawks drafted him in the second round for his 4.68 speed and hoped he would be able to step right in as the replacement for David Hawthorne, another undersized middle linebacker whose speed had been compromised by a bad knee to the point that the Seahawks did not want to pay him $5 million a year and thus let him go to New Orleans.
When training camp started, Wagner figured to battle veteran Barrett Ruud for the job in the middle. But Wagner showed he was capable almost from the start, and the Hawks chose to trade Ruud to New Orleans (the Saints just released him).
With the help of veteran Leroy Hill (drafted the same year as Tatupu) and Wright, Wagner has filled the middle just like Tatupu did a few years ago.
After a slow start that was certainly a product of the learning curve, coming from Utah State to the NFL, Wagner really stepped up against Green Bay and St. Louis. He had eight total tackles against the Packers in the Monday night win and seven solo tackles against the Rams in a game the Seattle defense dominated.
Wagner explained his success to reporters last week: “I’m a lot more comfortable, just because I’ve done it for four games. I’ve got confidence and the players have backed me up. It’s gone pretty good. I thought it would go pretty well. The faster I learned the defense, the faster I could start to make plays.”
Coach Pete Carroll bragged about him as well, telling reporters, “He is really playing good football. He’s doing a terrific job handling things. He’s shown up with big hits. He’s covering well. He’s chasing the football. You can see the speed he has.
“We don’t have anything we can’t do right now,” Carroll added. “He can play in nickel situations. He can do everything that we want him to right now. That’s a major statement for us.”
Then, as if to prove Carroll’s statement, Wagner went out and had his most impactful game yet in a defense-driven 16-12 win at Carolina. He finished with six tackles, including 1.5 sacks.
It has been a great start for the soft-spoken rookie who has quickly become a major member of the hard-charging Seattle defense.
It’s exactly what the Seahawks figured they were getting in April.
“First and foremost, he’s a big-time upgrade athletically,” Eric Stokes, assistant director of college scouting, told reporters on draft day. “His speed and his range are going to be very impressive, and you’re getting a guy that’s really physical. It’s just going to be a natural adjustment to middle linebacker. So we’re just kind of getting his feet wet and getting accustomed to our system and going from there. He should be good to go.”
Wagner was a tackling machine at Utah State, where he started for four seasons after being lightly recruited by colleges because he didn’t start playing football until he was a high school junior.
“We’re getting a great kid here — extremely hard worker, overachieving, highly productive college player,” Stokes said on draft day. “He really brings a unique skill-set in terms of his ball sensibility and versatility. He’s played both inside and outside linebacker at Utah State. He can pass-rush. He can drop. The kid can run like the wind. We’re really excited about him.”
And, after just five games, everyone knows why.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.