From berated and doubted, poked and prodded before the draft to the highest-paid middle linebacker in NFL history.
It’s been an extraordinary, now-unprecedented three years for Bobby Wagner.
When Wagner was coming out of Utah State as a senior before the 2012 draft, he made the customary rounds of visits to NFL teams. His worst stop, by far: Seattle.
First came a sit-down with then-Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton. The three-time Super Bowl-champion linebacker and intimidating coach basically embarrassed the young Wagner, who didn’t figure out until later Norton was testing his mental toughness.
“He probably lowered my guard down,” Wagner said of Norton, now Oakland’s defensive coordinator, following Sunday’s training-camp practice at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center. “We watched probably 40 plays. The first five were the best plays I’ve ever seen at Utah State.
“The next 35 were the worst plays I had at Utah State.
“He just killed me. Every single play,” Wagner said.
“He’s a great dude. I appreciate him. I’ve got to thank him. He definitely made me the player that I am.”
The player Wagner now is is the highest-paid middle linebacker in NFL history. He signed his $43 million, four-year contract extension with the Seahawks late Saturday night.
He’s the anchor of the league’s best defense two years running. He is the second of the Seahawks’ top two priorities to sign before this regular season, part of Seattle’s wowing, $130.7 million weekend in which it signed quarterback Russell Wilson and Wagner to their deals 39 hours apart.
“I’m blessed,” Wagner said.
To think, he was almost bounced by the Seahawks. General manager John Schneider was concerned with Wagner’s kidney functioning before that 2012 draft.
“After that (not-so-fun meeting with Norton) I walked into John’s office and they’re telling me that I need to stay here and do more tests on my kidneys,” Wagner said. “And I’m thinking between Coach Norton and them finding out about my kidneys, I thought that they weren’t going to pick me.”
The Seahawks did, in the second round. Three and a half years, two Super Bowls and an NFL title later, Wagner is an indispensable part of Seattle’s young, championship core.
“To be in this position right now it’s truly a blessing,” he said.
It’s also a continuation of what those around the NFL say you just can’t do in this era of salary caps and parity. Teams aren’t supposed to be able to keep young, accomplished players who want more money after winning titles. Many league observers wrote as recently as Friday that the only way the defending two-time NFC champions would be able to keep Wagner now that Wilson had signed his $87.6 million extension (making him the NFL’s second-highest paid quarterback) was to give Wagner the team’s franchise tag and one-year deal in 2016.
Those folks weren’t inside Seahawks headquarters. There, the front office was finishing Wilson’s deal with negotiations with Wagner’s agent already weeks old. The Seahawks knew what they could give Wilson and what that would leave Wagner. It was a two-step proposition for the last month.
Schneider, coach/executive vice president Pete Carroll and the unsung hero of this heyday for the Seahawks’ franchise, chief contract negotiator and salary-cap guru Matt Thomas, have locked up Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, K.J. Wright, Marshawn Lynch, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Doug Baldwin and now Wilson and Wagner to extensions over the last two years. That’s $369.7 million in re-signings, in a league whose salary cap is $143.28 million per team this year. Whose financial structure is specifically designed to keep teams from doing what Seattle is pulling off.
All that cash doesn’t count the $40 million contract of Jimmy Graham, the league’s most accomplished tight end the last three years. Schneider and Carroll traded for that in March, to drastically upgrade an offense that threw the ball fewer times than any other team last season.
How do they do it all?
Partly through taking flyers on cheap, undrafted free agents such as wide receivers Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse and now new left guard Alvin Bailey as starters around the big-bucks core.
And partly by shedding the contracts of veterans who may or may not have been in Seattle’s core, and if they were they weren’t young enough. That includes Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Max Unger (traded to New Orleans for Graham) and Percy Harvin, whose $7.2 million in prorated signing-bonus savings from 2015-17 helped fit Wilson’s and Wagner’s extensions under the cap.
It now also includes Tony McDaniel. The latest move to make these re-signings work came Sunday morning when the team released its starting defensive tackle to save close to $3 million against this year’s cap. The 30-year-old McDaniel started 29 of 32 regular-season games in his two seasons with Seattle.
Carroll smiled Sunday when it was mentioned the Seahawks are doing what everyone says can’t be done.
“Conventional wisdom and me don’t get along very well,” Carroll said.
“Honestly, way back when, when we first got here (in 2010), we wanted to (see) if we could build a team around personalities that we really thought were the ones. And it’s happened, and we’ve been able to do that. It does call for us to be committed to young guys, which we’ve done all along ... young guys are going to have to fill in the spots to complement the guys that we’ve been able to compensate.
“I kind of like it. This is the way we wanted to go with the team. We wanted to go with a bunch of guys that connected and tied together, and see how far that can take us. In a time when people don’t talk that way, I like that. Matty’s been great, he’s a real pro, a real pro. He and John have worked together beautifully. They’ve got their way they work off of one another, but Matt has demonstrated tremendous consistency, commitment to the plan. He’s been an integral part of what’s going on.”
So what’s next?
With Wilson and Wagner done, all the team’s efforts turn to getting Chancellor to end his holdout and report to training camp. The team finished its third practice Sunday.
“The focus had to be on (Wilson and Wagner); we were in the midst of these talks for some time, so we were still working with that,” Carroll said. “But our focus is never off of Kam. He is such an integral part of this team, and we love the guy so much.
“Now we really can get after it. I’m hoping we can get back to it as soon as possible. We miss the heck out of him.”
Wagner said the same thing. But something says, going by Schneider’s and Carroll’s track record, they’ll be able to move some money around some way to get Chancellor in camp sooner than later.
By the way, what it is about Wagner’s kidneys that had the Schneider and the Seahawks so concerned in 2012?
Wagner revealed Sunday “my kidneys don’t function as well as they should.”
Imagine how even better the richest middle linebacker in the league would play if they did.