Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is right in the hunt for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors and admits he'd love to win the award.
There may be professional athletes who downplay the importance of winning individual awards, those who say such accolades don’t really matter.
But none of those are Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Wagner says with no hesitation he’d love to be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year someday.
“Yeah, I have definitely set it as a goal,’’ Wagner said Wednesday. “It’s always been a goal of mine.’’
It’s one that with just five weeks left in the 2017 season suddenly seems realistic.
In a season when there doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut favorite — three-time winner J.J. Watt is out for the season and no one is putting up particularly huge numbers in the highlight stats of sacks or interceptions — Wagner is getting increasingly talked about as a legitimate candidate.
The football analytic site Pro Football Focus, for instance, this week published a story making a case for Wagner as DPOY noting that he has played a team-high 725 snaps and “is having a career year while the rest of the defense around him regresses a little individually.’’ At the moment, Wagner has the highest season grade of any defender in the NFL via PFF.
Wagner’s own assessment of his season? He agrees he’s never been better.
“I feel like I am playing really well,’’ Wagner said Wednesday. “I feel like I am on it. I feel like I’m in a good groove. I feel like I have a good grasp of the defense. I feel like I am calling plays, seeing plays a lot cleaner than I have. So I feel faster.”
Could that be enough to earn Wagner honors as the best defensive player in the NFL?
It won’t be easy.
For one, there’s a general perception that it’s harder for inside linebackers to win the award because they don’t often produce as many of the kind of gaudy stats that resonate with voters — the NFL’s official player of the year awards are determined in a vote of 50 writers and broadcasters throughout the nation — such as sacks and interceptions.
In the 46 years since the award debuted in 1971 eight middle linebackers have won the award, two doing so twice — Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis (twice), Mike Singletary (twice), Randy Gradishar, Jack Lambert and Luke Kuechly.
Conversely, defensive ends have won it 13 times.
Wagner, recall, led the NFL in tackles last season with 167 tackles and didn’t get a single vote for DPOY with the top two finishers each being edge players — Oakland’s Khalil Mack, who won the award with 18, and Denver’s Von Miller, who had 17.
And Wagner may not record as high of a tackle total this year with 100 with five games to go, which is third in the NFL this week.
Wagner, though, has hit the highlight reels more this season with a safety, a fumble recovery for a touchdown, and last Sunday one of the more remarkable interceptions anyone has ever seen, stealing the ball from San Francisco’s Trent Taylor as the two tumbled to the ground, setting up a Seattle touchdown in the second quarter.
“You definitely have to do more and I feel like the inside linebackers that have won it in the past understand that and have done more,’’ Wagner said. “And you know, I can do more, so I’ll be fine.”
Watch | Bobby Wagner discusses DPOY
What might oddly help Wagner are the season-ending injuries to Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.
Much to the oft-stated chagrin of Sherman and a few others, the Seahawks have never garnered much attention in the DPOY voting the last five years despite a defense that will go down in history as one of the best ever — Seattle players have gotten votes just once in the last five years with Earl Thomas finishing third in 2013 with 7.5 votes and Sherman fifth that same year with four.
One reason is that the team has had so many good players it’s been hard for voters to single any specific Seahawk out as more valuable than anyone else.
Another is that the way Seattle plays hasn’t necessarily lent itself to any one or two players putting up huge numbers, though Sherman did lead the NFL in 2013 with eight interceptions, a year when Kuechly won it.
But with Sherman and Chancellor out for the season (as well as Cliff Avril) and Thomas having missed two games, Wagner is getting noticed more than ever for holding things together for a defense that after a few rough moments early (as well as getting ripped apart by Houston’s Deshaun Watson) has helped keep the Seahawks afloat.
Seattle, for instance, has had the best run defense in the NFL since the fifth week of the season allowing no run to a tailback of longer than 17 yards and holding five of six opponents to 3.5 yards per carry or less and another to 4.2.
Wagner has been at the forefront of that effort with sure tackling and, with Chancellor out, increased responsibility for aligning the front.
“He’s a master of (the scheme) and he totally owns what we’re doing and the adjustments and he anticipates beautifully,’’ Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
PFF also praised Wagner’s improved production in pass coverage noting that his five pass breakups — which includes two interceptions — are the second most “plays on the ball’’ of any linebacker in the NFL.
Wagner agrees that he’s playing the pass better than ever saying he felt that was a specific area he could improve on after last season.
Specifically, Wagner said he spent even more time watching film, particularly of his own play in offseason OTAs, minicamp and training camp, assessing if he was making the right reads and drops in coverage.
“I was just really, really conscious of my drops and what’s behind me and what’s in front of me and just wanted to make sure that that area in my game improves,’’ Wagner said.
PFF also notes that Wagner has 14 total pressures and two sacks on 40 blitzes this year, another area of his game that has improved steadily and which is also largely due to even more refined reading and anticipation of the offense.
The next four weeks figure to determine the course of both Seattle’s season and whether Wagner’s candidacy has legs as Seattle hosts Philadelphia (first in the NFL in scoring offense), then plays at Jacksonville (fist in the NFL in rushing), hosts the Rams (fourth in the NFL in total offense) and then plays at Dallas (which will have star running back Ezekiel Elliott back.
“It is definitely something I would be honored with but I feel like as long as I keep doing what I am doing, it will work itself out,’’ Wagner said.