For the second year in a row, the Seahawks have found a young linebacker who has become an instant contributor. Like K.J. Wright last season, Bobby Wagner has stepped right into a starting spot and performed. The difference this year is that the Seahawks have a legitimate candidate for rookie of the year on their hands.
Wagner has lots of competition for that honor, so over the next three weeks the stats he compiles and the way the Seahawks finish will weigh heavily in this race.
One of his closest competitors for that distinction is Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly does have 21 more tackles than Wagner and has made an immediate impact on his team, but he has only one interception, one sack, and his team is 4-9 and out of the playoff race. Wagner has three interceptions, two sacks and his team is in contention for a division title.
There's also something about being drafted in the second round and playing your way into the job rather than being handed the job as Kuechly was.
I've never seen a player grow at such a consistent pace as Wagner has. I called the first preseason game of the year from the radio booth and I saw a player who looked like a rookie. He tried to run around blocks, took bad angles and was lost in pass coverage. It's not that Wagner played poorly; he just had a long ways to go.
The best cure for that is repetition and head coach Pete Carroll and linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr. wisely left him on the field to take nearly every snap in the preseason. Wagner benefited greatly from that.
Now, I see a linebacker making plays by using his head, not just his speed and power.
Most impressive to me is Wagner's three interceptions – four if you count the one stolen from him because Earl Thomas was flagged for touching the quarterback's head in Miami.
Interceptions do not come easy in the NFL. As my old linebacker coach Tom Catlin used to say, the quarterbacks in this league are very good and they're not throwing the ball to you. It involves anticipation, quick reaction and an understanding of opposing offenses. In effect, you have to outsmart the opposing quarterback and the offensive coordinator – a tall order for a kid born in the early '90s.
Once you do find yourself in that fortunate position, catching the ball can be the hardest part. It's hard for this old linebacker to admit, but linebacker is not considered a skill position. Usually your hands are aching and bleeding, so catching a ball that was not meant for you can be tough.
Additionally, the interceptions that Wagner caught this year came in zone coverage, where you must drop to the right spot on the field, read the quarterback's eyes and feel what's going on behind you.
In zone coverage, you can "peek" to see what routes receivers are running but you must keep your eyes on the quarterback the majority of the time. That means using your imagination and the knowledge that comes from time spent watching film to predict what receivers are doing behind your back as you focus on the quarterback. Once he starts his throwing motion, you have to react quickly and make your break for the ball. Most of the time you make that break, there's a voice telling you "I sure hope I'm right on this one or I'm going to look stupid in films."
Wagner is making those breaks correctly and the decisions he's making in the passing game are things you typically see from a linebacker in his second or third year.
He's also come a long way playing the run. Instead of running around blockers as he did in that first preseason game, he has developed a varied repertoire of going through some blockers while slipping or avoiding others when necessary.
In the St. Louis game, a game that Wagner himself identified as the point in the season when the light switch went on for him, he crashed into an offensive guard with perfect technique, separated from the blocker and made a tackle for no gain. Against the Bears on a fourth-and-1 play that was pivotal in the Hawks' win, he avoided a blocker at just the right point and got his right shoulder pad on the ball-carrier, stopping him dead in his tracks.
The point is to hit the ball-carrier, not the blocker. But sometimes you must hit the blocker, so there's a time and a place for using both of those tools. Wagner has shown the discretion to know when to hit and when to avoid.
I never thought I'd say this about a rookie but Wagner's instincts in those situations draw Lofa Tatupu comparisons from me – very high praise. That's why he's my defensive rookie of the year.