In an age of positionless football, the sport looks completely different in 2017 than it did even 10 years ago. Defenses are in sub packages more than they’re in base, offenses are using spread concepts more than ever before, and it's becoming increasingly more difficult to compare players across eras. But no matter how much the game continues to evolve, Hall of Fame careers are generally easy to recognize. In 2017, Bobby Wagner is having the season all Hall of Fame linebackers have.
Overshadowed by the two Hall of Fame players that have lined up in the same defense as him for his entire career, Wagner has quietly begun to put together a Hall of Fame résumé. In year-six, he is still lacking the longevity and All-Pro selections to be a no-doubt Hall of Famer, but with another (health permitting) five-to-ten seasons left in his career, those two qualifiers will come. This season, Wagner is experiencing the kind of campaign all Hall of Fame linebackers have — a season that could, and should, end with him being named the Defensive Player of the Year.
What’s on the résumé of a Hall of Fame linebacker? To narrow down the field, I looked at all off-ball linebackers residing in Canton who began their careers in the Super Bowl era. That knocks out all-time sack artists such as Derrick Thomas and Lawrence Taylor, as well some of the most devastating hitters the game has ever seen, such as Ray Nitschke and Chuck Bednarik.
I also included two future Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, as well as Luke Kuechly, who will likely line up next to Wagner when they are named to the Hall of Fame’s All-Decade team in 2020.
Here are the 10 linebackers who made the cut, and a short summary of their legacy:
Derrick Brooks, the most important part of the Buccaneers’ famed Tampa-2 defense; Harry Carson, perhaps Bill Parcells’ favorite player ever and second to Taylor in terms of importance to the Giants’ great defenses; Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, both of whom led the great Steel Curtain defense of the 70s; Willie Lanier, the best player on the Kansas City Chiefs’ lone Super Bowl championship; Mike Singletary, the heart and soul of one of the best defenses of all-time with the Chicago Bears; Junior Seau, perhaps the most versatile linebacker in NFL history; Ray Lewis, perhaps the best linebacker in NFL history; Brian Urlacher, overshadowed by Lewis but one of the most versatile linebackers ever, ending his career with 1000+ tackles, 40+ sacks and 20+ interceptions; and finally, Luke Kuechly, Wagner’s future running mate on the All-Decade team of the 2010s.
With those 10 linebackers, I averaged out first and second team All-Pro selections, as well as Pro Bowl selections. Pro Bowl selections are often trivial, but I included them because they’re still a decent indicator of longevity. On top of that, there were three more categories to look at: did they win a Defensive Player of the Year award, did they win a Super Bowl, and were they named to an All-Decade team (decided by the Pro Football Hall of Fame).
The seven Hall of Fame linebackers, as well as Lewis, Urlacher and Kuechly, averaged six first-team All-Pro selections, two second-team All-Pro selections and nine trips to the Pro Bowl. Super Bowl victories weren’t averaged, because Lambert and Ham’s four each would have skewed the figure. Instead, that category can be parsed down to this: only Seau and Kuechly have zero titles, and aside from Lambert and Ham, only Lewis won multiple. It was similar for Defensive Player of the Year -- only Carson and Lanier never won it, while just Lambert, Lewis and Singletary won it multiple times. And, again, just Carson and Lanier were never named to an All-Decade team - however Lanier was named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team - and incredibly Lambert was named to both the team of the 1970s and 1980s. The still-active Kuechly of course hasn’t been named to one yet, but will almost certainly be on the team of the 2010s.
By these standards, Wagner is measuring up incredibly well. Through five seasons, he has accumulated two first-team All-Pro selections, a second-team All-Pro selection, three Pro Bowl trips and a Super Bowl victory. This season should see him add another first-team All-Pro nod and a Pro Bowl selection. Like Kuechly, he’s almost a lock for the All-Decade team of the 2010s. As long as health and happiness permit Wagner to have the longevity the Hall of Famers mentioned before had, there’s little reason to think he won’t get three or four more All-Pro selections, as well as consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl.
Wagner’s done a tremendous job building up a Hall of Fame-caliber résumé through five-and-a-half seasons, all while being the second or third most talented player on his own defense. The Defensive Player of the Year award is wide open this season - his biggest challengers are likely Calais Campbell and Aaron Donald - and Wagner has a great chance in 2017 to add the most elusive missing piece to his career accolades. With his strong play standing out on a loaded defense, there’s a chance he adds a second Super Bowl ring along the way.