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Bobby Wagner talks Seahawks linebackers, facing former coaches, and how running backs matter

NFL: Seattle Seahawks-Training Camp Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, just one season removed from the one we’re currently entering, these were some of the starters on the Seattle Seahawks defense: Frank Clark, Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, plus key role players like Byron Maxwell, Justin Coleman, and Marcus Smith.

Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.

With Jarran Reed missing the first six games of the season, that’s at least 10 key players on Seattle’s defense just two seasons ago who are gone when the Seahawks host the Cincinnati Bengals in nine days. Who remains?

Shaquill Griffin, going into year three. Bradley McDougald, going into his third season with Seattle. K.J. Wright, the most veteran Seahawks player left on the defense. And of course the guy who has a solid argument of being the best all-around defensive player in the NFL over the last seven years: Bobby Wagner.

As a linebacker who came onto a defense that already had Sherman, Thomas, Chancellor, plus Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, Brandon Browner, and Red Bryant, Wagner could take time to learn. To follow. Now with a host of young players hungry to prove themselves, it’s Wagner and Wright who have taken on the responsibility to lead. To provide. And to keep Seattle in the conversation of having the best defense in the NFL.

People haven’t been afraid of saying in the last couple of years that the Seahawks defense isn’t what it used to be, but Wagner insists that the defense is never going to take a step behind the offense and that they’re excited to show fans what’s next.

On Friday, I spoke to Bobby Wagner about this incredible linebackers group the team has assembled, what it’s like to see Seattle’s scheme copied around the league, and how much responsibility he feels to mentor and lead the young guys looking for a shot.

You were closely tied to Mychal Kendricks in the 2012 draft. What was your relationship like at that time and how is it now that you’ve been teammates for almost a year?

Our relationship is good, man. We actually got to work out with each other before the combine, I trained in Florida for awhile and then I went to Arizona. When I went to Arizona, Kendricks was there so I got to be around him and we kinda knew each other from afar when we got drafted. Now that he’s on the team, I got a chance to really get to know him. A really great guy and I’m excited to play with him.

What does Kendricks give you that you didn’t have before he arrived?

It’s another playmaker on the field. Very fast, very athletic. If you watched him, in preseason and a couple of games he played last year, he’s really good at rushing the passer. I think that’s going to be really cool to have three really good blitzing linebackers that when they get the opportunity, they make plays happen. I’m kind of excited to see how that unfolds.

Are you familiar with the “Strong Smash Sky Zone” and how does it relate to what the Seahawks plan to do this season?

It’s familiar. We got a different one. A lot of the plays that people run across the league that are similar to ours, it’s similar but it’s different. Obviously. The personnel is different, the abilities are different. We have a similar play, we don’t necessarily call it that, and I feel Seattle runs it better.

You’ve led the league in tackles before, you’ve had 4 or 5 sacks in a season a couple times before, you’ve got nine interceptions. Do you care about any stat?

Nah, I don’t necessarily think about that. You wanna make plays and so making plays are important, but at the end of the day you want to win. I think the biggest stat that’s always going to be the most important is “Are you winning?” and “Are you doing well in winning?” If you’re playing good and the team is winning, I think that’s always a success.

Is there a “Bobby Wagner” standard for each game? When talking about the best linebacker in the NFL, a player ranked 15th in the NFL Top 100, is there anything besides the score that you wanna make sure you’ve accomplished when you walk off the field?

I think every game you wanna make sure your presence is felt. If the other team feels your presence and you made your presence felt, whether it’s the way you called the game, whether it’s the plays you made, there’s many different ways to make your presence felt. You never want to play a game and walk away and they’re asking, “Did he even play?” You want to make sure your presence felt and that’s kind of what I focus on is making sure that the team knows they played me.

How much responsibility do you personally take on to help teach and mentor young linebackers on the team like Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven?

Me and K.J. (Wright) take a lot of pride in helping young guys, helping the guys behind us be successful because at the end of the day you want everybody to win and you want everybody to be able to take care of their family. So you kind of heard stories when I first came into the league that the vets didn’t really take care of the younger guys or they’d keep the information because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

I definitely feel like having Coach (Ken) Norton mentoring us — me and K.J. took that advice. We give information away because we feel that the information that we give will help the guys that come in, the guys that leave, the guys that are behind us help provide for their families. That’s the main thing.

It was fun watching the game yesterday. I felt like it was a linebacker’s game. (Austin) Calitro was in the backfield, BBK had a sack, Cody had a couple good hits, Shaquem (Griffin) had a nice play on special teams, and the list goes on and on. We felt like it was a really cool game to be a linebacker.

There’s this term out there for awhile that “running backs don’t matter” and it’s your job as a linebacker and the leader of the defense to prepare for that position every week. I’m curious what you think on the running back debate, specifically in how interchangeable running backs are. How much of a difference is it from running back to running back as you prepare for offenses each game?

Yeah, everybody’s different. Everybody has their special attributes. Todd Gurley is special in his own way. Zeke (Elliott) is special in his own way. (Alvin) Kamara is special in his own way. You have to really study film and really understand who you’re going against. You might have a running back that the team likes to use running the ball but also in the passing game. When you’ve got a running back, especially like that can get you both running the ball and in passing the ball, it’s really elite. You’ve got to be conscious of their style. Do they like contact or do they avoid contact? Do they like to run on the outside or in between the tackles? You’ve got to watch the film and figure out what is their style.

You’ve seen a lot of your former coaches on the defensive side of the ball go on to get jobs on other teams, often as head coach or defensive coordinator. How much more difficult does it get to play those teams, if at all?

I don’t think it makes it difficult. In that sense, it kind of prolongs your career because you know that if the team doesn’t want you, there’s similar defenses out there that you can go into. I think that we have a very special and unique defense and so I think we started to see that because there are so many styles similar to ours that provides offensive coordinators time to really try and figure out to beat the defense. Back in the day — I say “back in the day” like I’m old — 2013-14, it was really just our defense and one other. So you weren’t really playing it too often. Now it’s a lot more out of our scheme out there, so it gives them more time to figure out different ways to kind of flood zones or get us in interesting positions. But I think it’s cool because it shows that our defense is special, it’s standing the test of time and a lot of people are copying it.

This is perhaps the most interesting Seahawks team prior to Week 1 that we’ve seen in quite a few years, just because there are even more new starters, more guys getting tested in new roles, and some believe that the offense will have to do more of carrying the defense than before. What are you most excited about in regards to this defense as the season approaches?

No matter what people want to believe this is always going to be a defensive team. It’s always defense first, it’s just the way we do it. We run the ball, we play defense. That’s not going to change.

We understand that — and I said it last year and people didn’t really believe it — but a lot of the unknowns and things of that nature is because the fans grew accustomed to watching our team and certain players play for a long time. And now that those players aren’t here they automatically assume we’re not going to be good but we still have great leadership here, we have great players still here, and young guys itching to prove themselves.

And that’s what we were when it comes down to it: we were just young guys trying to prove ourselves and we’ve been doing that.

I’m excited about our group, I’m excited about our young guys. A lot of guys last year it was their first time playing or first time starting and there are a lot of unknowns from that perspective but now we have guys with a little bit of experience under their belt and that’s going to help us moving forward as well. It’s going to be exciting to get out there and see everything come together, I think it’s going to be one of our closest groups and it’s going to be fun.

Much appreciate your time, Bobby, and we’ve got to thank BODYARMOR for setting this up

Even before we came together, I’ve always drank BODYARMOR. It’s an amazing drink and I really feel hydrated; it’s helped me perform better because I’m always hydrated. It’s been a blessing to be able to partner with them and it’s the best drink out there. Everybody should drink BODYARMOR. It’s the drink of the future, drink of the now, if you’re not drinking BODYARMOR then you’re behind.

They also have a lot of other prominent athletes connected to that, it seems to be a fun fraternity to be a part of.

It’s a great family. Even with Sherm, it’s a great family.

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