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Is Bobby Wagner a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate?

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 season has been one of the most puzzling campaigns in recent history for the Seattle Seahawks. Nearly every player on the squad has followed a sinusoidal path in regard to quality of play throughout the year – one game dominant, one game mediocre, and so on. Throughout the perpetual inconsistency one Seahawk has stood above the rest, playing at a noticeably elite level every week: BOBBY JOSEPH WAGNER.

I have often said this season that Bobby has been the best player on the Seahawks. I really don’t know if it’s been all that close. His running mate K.J. Wright is right up there too, but I have no qualms saying that Wagner has been the best linebacker in football this season.

With a First Team All Pro honor likely around the corner, the conversation shifts to whether or not he deserves to be in the conversation for the Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) award. From the eye test (and bias), I’d say that he definitely should be, but there just so happens to be something we can use to quantifiably deduce whether or not this is the case – a little something called statistics.

In the 16 seasons since 2000, the DPOY has been an edge rusher seven times, a standup linebacker five times, a safety three times, and a cornerback once. Pass rushers are consistently coveted year after year by teams in the draft – other than quarterback and left tackle, there might not be a more valued position in the league. Because of this, it is no surprise that edge rushers have won the most DPOY awards over this period.

Standup linebackers are a close second, though, lending a stronger recency bias than most may think to Wagner’s candidacy for the award.

Wagner’s stat line in 2016 is pretty insane: 167 tackles (led NFL and set Seahawks franchise record), 4.5 sacks (third among standup linebackers by half of a sack), 1 interception, 1 fumble recovered, and 3 passes defensed.

Let’s compare these statistics to the seasons of previous standup linebackers who have recently won the award:

Year Player Combined Tackles Solo Tackles Sacks Interceptions FF FR PD
Year Player Combined Tackles Solo Tackles Sacks Interceptions FF FR PD
2000 Ray Lewis 136 107 3.0 2 0 3 6
2002 Derrick Brooks 117 87 1.0 5 1 1 11
2003 Ray Lewis 161 120 1.5 6 2 2 13
2005 Brian Urlacher 121 97 6.0 0 1 0 5
2013 Luke Kuechly 156 93 2.0 4 0 0 7
2016 Bobby Wagner 167 85 4.5 1 0 1 3
Averages (excluding Wagner): 138.2 100.8 2.7 3.4 0.8 1.2 8.4

It’s immediately clear that Wagner is lacking in several categories. Despite his enormous tackle total, he has a much higher assist percentage than the other linebackers. Fortunately, this characteristic is shared by Kuechly in 2013. This likely has to do with the fact that Wagner and Kuechly both play with top-tier defensive lines and linebacking mates (Carolina was ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA in 2013). This contributes to the idea that it’s hard to crown a player the DPOY while playing on a defense with multiple elite players. Kuechly’s win in 2013, though, should shelf that argument against Wagner’s candidacy.

The next area that Wagner’s resume is lacking is in the coverage category. He is nearly 2.5 interceptions below the mean while also defending 5 fewer passes. This points to the fact that linebackers to win the award must be dominant in coverage.

While Wagner isn’t normally thought of as a coverage linebacker, he is much better than people give him credit for. The referees took away a pass defensed in Week 16 that should have also been added to his resume:

This play was called for defensive pass interference. Wagner’s arm is on the tight end’s right shoulder, but it doesn’t seem to impede the ability to receive the ball. It looks more like a flop than anything else. But so it goes, as the league makes it harder and harder for defenders to cover.

This doesn’t really display his ability as a coverage backer, but it does showcase the knack he has for putting himself in position to make a play on the ball consistently. While it didn’t translate to picks or passes defensed, Wagner has often demonstrated high capability in coverage. Let us never forget the time he ran step for step down the entire field with Randall Cobb without getting burnt.

Fumbles forced and recovered don’t seem to have any tangible impact on previous award recipients, so we can gloss over these numbers.

The main area where Wagner stands out statistically when compared to past winners is pass rushing. Aside from Urlacher, Wagner tops all other victors by at least 1.5 sacks. While Bobby isn’t sent after the quarterback very often, he is extremely effective when asked, seemingly getting pressure nearly every time he is sent. On this particular play, Wagner doesn’t even blitz:

Seattle is in man coverage and Wagner is spying the quarterback. The secondary does a great job smothering receivers so Kaepernick bounces outside to try and hit the left edge. Bobby closes quickly and makes the great tackle for the sack.

Wagner’s pass rushing productivity gives him an edge on other linebackers who won the DPOY, but is that enough?

Brian Urlacher’s 2005 season might help us answer that question. While Urlacher had a high sack total and low coverage numbers as well, his low assist percentage when tackling tells a lot of the story. Despite Chicago’s defense being first overall in DVOA that year and the emergence of Lance Briggs as an elite outside linebacker, over 80% of Urlacher’s tackles were solo (only 51% of Wagner’s tackles were solo in 2016).

It looks as though, from a statistical standpoint, Wagner’s 2016 season isn’t quite up to snuff with the other standup linebackers who have recently been dubbed DPOY. Past winners have all either been statistically dominant in coverage or made the vast majority of their tackles solo.

Hold on my friends. We’re going to swing back a bit and return to something I referenced before - something everybody just loooooves: the eye test.

I, frankly, don’t give a shit how the numbers stack up. Wagner has been flat out dominant all season long. Two plays, which are very similar in nature, tell me everything I need to know about Bobby’s season. I have highlighted the first in a previous film breakdown, but it’s so good that I’m going to bring it back:

In overtime against the Cardinals, a touchdown ends the game for either side. Arizona rushes up to the line and hands the ball to David Johnson, who established himself as one of the top two running backs in the league this season. Johnson, who is an enormous human being, runs with a full head of steam towards the end zone. Wagner slides over, plants his feet, and stops Johnson in his tracks with the sexiest form tackle you’ll ever see.

Nearly the same sequence played out in the second clash between these NFC West titans:

Johnson, again, runs the ball towards the goal on the left side of the offensive line. DeShawn Shead makes a weak attempt at tackling the human battering ram and it seems that Johnson will easily score. Enter Bobby. He again stands Johnson up on the goal line, showcasing an insane ability to stop large dudes in their tracks.

Throughout 2016, there have consistently been at least two or three plays by Wagner per game that cause me to stare in awe at the screen and quietly whisper “damn” to myself. If that’s not what the Defensive Player of the Year award is about, I don’t know what is. He has been the best player on one of the league’s best defenses.

The biggest factor left, when discussing his candidacy for the honor, is analyzing his competition.

Von Miller was the front-runner a month ago, but had zero sacks over the final four games of the season while the Broncos sputtered to a grinding halt and missed the postseason.

Landon Collins has had an unreal year, with 125 tackles, 4.0 sacks, and 5 interceptions as a safety.

Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks with 15.5 and forced 6 fumbles.

Aaron Donald is Aaron Donald (*shiver*), so that speaks for itself.

Khalil Mack has 77 total tackles, 11.0 sacks, 5 force fumbles, and a pick-six to his name this year.

All of these players are well-deserving of the award and the strong crop of candidates tells me that Bobby has little to no chance of winning the award.

Should he though?

Again, probably not. If I had to pick a winner, I would go with either Collins or Mack, who have seemed to make huge plays with games on the line all season long.

But I definitely believe that Wagner should be in the conversation and deserves to slot in near the top. It’s hard to be flashy as a standup linebacker in an era of endless Madden-generated edge rushers popping up all over the place. That issue is compounded with Wagner’s lack of interceptions and traditional highlight reel plays.

Does any of this really matter? Nope. It doesn’t matter if Bobby gets the recognition he deserves. If he keeps playing at this DPOY-caliber level through the postseason and can help the Seahawks get back to the promised land, I couldn’t care less.

While he likely won’t get the highest accolade for his play this year, Bobby has put together the best season of his career and we are damn lucky to bear witness to his greatness.

His 2016 campaign isn’t over. Can he continue to build his resume in the playoffs? We’ll find out starting on Saturday.