SEATTLE - Bobby Wagner keeps getting better.
That’s what his coaches and teammates say.
“He’s making plays left and right, all over the place,” fellow Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright said this week.
“Bobby Wagner is the best in the business at what he does,” quarterback Russell Wilson said. “It’s been that way for years and years.”
Wagner is a three-time Pro Bowler and has twice been named an All Pro. But his stellar play this season has some labeling him as the leading candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
Wagner admits he’s thought about it.
“Yeah I’ve definitely set it as a goal,” he said Wednesday after practice. “It’s always been a goal of mine.”
A year after leading the NFL in tackles, Wagner says he’s playing the best football of his career.
“I definitely feel like this is as well as I’ve played,” he said after Sunday’s win over the 49ers. “I feel like I’m on it. I can see the routes. I’m running the defense well, making some big plays.”
The thought of Wagner playing better than ever is a scary proposition for the league. But Seahawks coach Pete Carroll agrees with the assessment. He says Wagner’s biggest area of improvement is his pass coverage.
“He’s more precise in his pass drops,” Carroll said. “He’s worked hard at that stuff, and he’s in the throwing lanes. His anticipation is the best it's been in terms of breaking back up on stuff thrown underneath him. Last game was a great example of that.”
Perhaps the best example was Wagner’s second interception of the season. San Francisco quarterback C.J. Beathard tried to connect with rookie Trent Taylor on a skinny post in the middle of the field. Wagner jumped the route and ripped the ball away as he wrestled Taylor to the ground.
“Yeah, that’s an extraordinary play,” Carroll said. “It was a very unusual play the way he snatched the ball. You couldn't see how it happened even. How did the ball change hands there? Really great awareness. Great strength and savvy.”
Defensive coordinator Kris Richard offered high praise as well.
“That’s kind of one of the best plays in football that I’ve seen,” he said.
For Wagner it was just another day at the office.
“I just saw he didn’t have the ball secured and just took it from him,” he said.
Carroll pointed to Wagner’s familiarity with the Seahawks’ system as the main reason his performance seems to keep improving.
“The scheme’s stayed the same, and he’s a master of it,” Carroll said. “He totally owns what we’re doing, the adjustments, and he anticipates beautifully because of that.”
Wagner agreed that six years in the same system, playing with many of the same teammates, has made his job easier. But he also said that he focuses every offseason on one aspect of his game and finds something specific to work on.
“I think you just go and watch film and look at all the opportunities you had and might have missed out on,” he said. “And that’s kind of what I did.”
Wagner is again near the league lead in tackles, racking up 100 for the sixth consecutive season. In addition to his two picks, he’s also recorded 1.5 sacks and a safety.
Even more impressive are his advanced statistics.
Pro Football Focus ranks Wagner as the surest tackling linebacker in the league, the best run stopper and second best pass defender. An analysis the site posted this week ranked Wagner as the league's best overall defender, further boosting the defensive player of the year talk.
If Wagner were to win the award, he’d be just the third Seahawks player to do so after Kenny Easley in 1984 and Cortez Kennedy in 1992. He’d also be just the sixth middle linebacker to win it in the past 23 seasons, an accomplishment Wagner says shouldn’t be overlooked.
“I feel like they don’t necessarily appreciate tackles as much so you can’t get it off tackles, you got to do more,” he said. “You got to get interceptions, you got to get sacks. … I feel like the inside linebackers who have won it in the past understand that and have done more.”
That’s what Wagner says he's doing this year. More.
Before leading the league in tackles in 2016, Wagner earned a vote from Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy in 2014 for NFL MVP. Dungy said he felt nobody that year was more valuable to their team.
If Wagner has improved as much since then as his teammates and coaches say, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award this year should be a lock.
“It’s definitely something that I would be honored with,” Wagner said. “But I feel like as long as I keep doing what I’m doing, it will work itself out.”
SEATTLE - Bobby Wagner keeps getting better.