RENTON, Wash. (AP) - Bobby Wagner showed enough in training camp a year ago that the Seattle Seahawks were comfortable heading into the regular season with a rookie drafted in the second round from a non-BCS school starting at middle linebacker.

It wasn't until Wagner chased down Carolina quarterback Cam Newton from behind in Week 5 a year ago that everyone else started to take notice of what Wagner was doing.

"Yeah, I think as far as the media that was the first time they saw my speed but my speed hasn't changed. I've always been fast," Wagner said. "But me tracking down Cam Newton that was something you all seen for the first time."

Wagner heads back to Carolina this week for the Seahawks season opener, looking to exceed the production of a rookie season when he was at the center of one of the best defenses in the NFL.

Just like quarterback Russell Wilson, Wagner was a big question for the Seahawks when the 2012 season opener arrived. By the end of the year, just like Wilson on the offensive side, Seattle knew it had its defensive leader for years to come.

"I don't think anybody could have thought he'd be as good as he is," Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. said. "This kid has everything that you want. He's got blazing speed. He's really smart. He's very physical. He looks the part; he's got these big muscles. He's got this inner motivation and drive about him that's just unmatchable. Combining all that with experience in Year 2, I think there really are no limits to what he can do."

Seattle believed they had a younger, faster, bigger version of its previous middle linebackers _ David Hawthorne and Lofa Tatupu _ when they took Wagner out of Utah State. From the start, coach Pete Carroll said the intent was for Wagner to be their season-opening starter and he earned the position with an impressive preseason.

But they didn't want too much loaded on Wagner's broad shoulders from the beginning. He is still relatively young _ only 23 entering his second season _ so for his first NFL game last season at Arizona, it wasn't Wagner calling the plays.

Instead, the earpiece was in the helmet of teammate K.J. Wright and he was the one organizing the Seahawks defense. That wasn't a slight against Wagner, but a realistic approach for a rookie in his NFL debut. And it didn't last long either. Wright believes that was the only game last season where Wagner didn't make all the defensive calls.

"A full season helps you out a lot," Wright said. "He had a great rookie season and this year should be even better."

Wagner finished the season with 140 total tackles, three interceptions and two sacks, and added another 17 tackles and an interception in Seattle's two playoff games. Wagner finished with double-digit tackles in a game six times last season and he ranked seventh overall in the NFL in tackles.

Sunday's matchup features the two best young middle linebackers in the NFL with Carolina's Luke Kuechly and Wagner. Kuechly got the upper hand in the individual, season-long matchup between the two, winning defensive rookie of the year honors with Wagner coming in second.

"Our games are a little different, but I see the similarities that people say," Wagner said. "I like to consider myself a different linebacker from him. He makes a lot of tackles, I try and make a lot of plays all around."

Notes: DE Cliff Avril (hamstring) is doubtful for Sunday, although Carroll said he'd be a game-time decision. CB Brandon Browner (hamstring) is questionable, while DTs Tony McDaniel (groin) and Brandon Mebane (groin) are both probable. ... Carroll expanded on a tweet from injured WR Percy Harvin (hip) earlier this week where Harvin indicated he was shooting at being healthy by Week 7. "I think that he's going to surprise the doctors and all that. He's been extremely proactive. Nothing but positive reports coming out, his attitude has been great about it in every way; he's doing things twice a day here. He's giving himself a chance to hit that mark and that's optimistic but still, he's thinking it's real and we are going with it and we will see what happens."

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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