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Ask someone to name the best rookies in the NFL this season. They will tell you about the quarterback quintuplets. They may mention Trent Richardson. Press them to name the best rookies on the defensive side. Be sure to count how many players they name. If they mention Bobby Wagner at all, give them a big pat on the back. Even among Seahawks fans, Wagner has taken a back seat to the quarterback mayhem, the Legion of Boom, and his more controversial rookie classmate, Bruce Irvin. Yet, it is Wagner that leads all NFL rookies in tackles after a 14 tackle performance on Sunday. It was Wagner that tackled Wes Welker to end the game. Michael Robinson made some headlines in pre-season when he compared Wagner to his former 49ers teammate, Patrick Willis. That seemed like hyperbole at the time, but through six games, Wagner compares favorably to six of the most recent defensive rookies of the year that played middle linebacker.
Ten of the last twelve rookies of the year played linebacker. Not all those players make good comparables for Wagner. Players like Von Miller and Shawn Merriman are more rush linebackers. Wagner plays in the middle, so it made sense to narrow the field to those that would be judged on similar performance. Beyond Willis (2007 DROY), players like Brian Cushing (2009), Jerod Mayo (2008), DeMeco Ryans (2006), Jonathan Vilma (2004), and Brian Urlacher (2000) make sense to compare to Wagner. Seahawks fans may be interested to see where their best rookie linebacker, Lofa Tatupu, stacks up, so he was included in the comparison as well.
The glamour stats for linebackers are tackles, sacks, and tackles for loss. Wagner holds his own against these great rookie linebackers through their first six games.
Wagner ranks 5th among the group in tackles, is tied for 3rd in sacks, and ties for first in tackles for loss. It is worth noting that all of Wagner’s sacks and tackles for loss have come in the last three games. And after averaging just 5.3 tackles per game in his first three contests, he is averaging 9.0 in his last three. As a point of comparison, Willis averaged 10.9 tackles/game in his record-setting rookie season in which he finished with the 3rd-highest tackle total in NFL history. It should be noted that tackles were not officially tracked as an NFL statistic until 2001, so some of the numbers before then are suspect. In any event, if Wagner were to sustain his 9.0 tackles/game pace the rest of the year, he would finish with 133 tackles, or fourth-highest of this group behind Willis (174), Ryans (156), and Cushing (134).
His 1.5 sacks through six games puts him on pace for 4 in the season. However, Wagner only started playing on nickle downs the past three games, which is where he collected all his sacks. If he matches his three-game pace the rest of season, he would finish with 6.5 sacks. That would be good for 2nd-most of this group, behind only Urlacher’s 8.0 sacks.
Wagner’s most impressive stat may be his tackles for loss, where he is already tied the pace of the leaders through six games. He is on pace for 10-11 tackles for loss. Taking into account his three-game pace, where he was getting more snaps and collected all his TFLs, he would wind up with 17. The highest total among this group is 9, by Ryans. Needless to say, that would be an outstanding total.
Wagner showed a knack for reading dump-off passes out of the back-field during training camp and in college, picking off a few. His new responsibilities in nickel defense will provide even more opportunities to make impact plays against the pass.
Irvin may wind up being Wagner’s toughest competition for the rookie award if he continues his near-record sack pace. The fact is, Wagner has played his way into the debate. Most people around the NFL still would laugh at Robinson’s comparison of Wagner to Willis, but like the entire Seahawks team, Wagner will need to earn his respect one game at a time.