RENTON, Wash. - Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner entered the team's theater room mostly used for meetings just as coach Pete Carroll's weekly Wednesday press conference was winding down.
Noticing Wagner while in mid-sentence, Carroll shifted gears from the question at hand, smiled and stated: "If we can just get any leadership in the linebacker room it would be a little bit – oh, oh sorry Bobby.”
After the laughter died down, Carroll fielded a question about Wagner's play and leadership, which have helped propel Seattle's defense. After lauding Wagner's play, Carroll made reference to liking the way Wagner rushes the passer. "Every once in a while, we give him a call that he gets to do that," Carroll said.
Wagner responded by clearing his throat as if to suggest that he actually does not get an adequate amount of opportunities to rush the passer, which is supported by him having just one sack this the season.
Sacking the quarterback is about the only thing Wagner has not done much of for the Seahawks (8-5) who could clinch a playoff berth with a win Sunday at San Francisco (3-10). Wagner has been productive throughout his seven-year career and appears set to earn a fifth Pro Bowl selection and potentially a fourth All-Pro nod. However, given the major turnover of talent on Seattle's defense, Wagner's performance as a player and a leader may have reached their apex. He is one of two starters remaining from the Super Bowl years. The other, outside linebacker K.J. Wright, has missed 10 games with a knee injury. That has left Wagner as the lone, wily veteran to lead this crew on how to play defense the Seahawks way.
"More than ever, we’re calling on him to do more than he had done in the past," Carroll said.
The question moving forward is will the Seahawks reward Wagner with a contract extension this summer or will he be forced to play out the final year of his deal the same way Wright and safety Earl Thomas did this season? Seattle has had more than enough legendary players depart on bad terms be it over money or injuries to put a rather sad face on the end of the franchise's era of dominance. Maybe, just maybe, the Wagner situation could avoid going down a messy road and the face of the defense will have a chance to retire in Seattle on his own terms. Wouldn't that be refreshing?
First, let's address Wagner's value. He is ninth in the NFL in tackles (107) and leads all linebackers in passes defended (11). In fact, only two other linebackers even have double digits in that category. Because of the repeated absence of Wright and veteran acquisition Mychal Kendricks (now out for the season), Wagner has been the key cog within the front seven while helping to bring along young linebackers such as rookie Jacob Martin and Austin Calitro, waived by four NFL teams including Seattle before earning playing time this season.
“I just go out and try to do my job, man," Wagner said. "I just want to make sure that everybody’s on the same page and you kind of just throw that position into the mix...You just go out there, make the plays, calls and all that stuff and whoever’s next to you, you just try to get them on the same page.”
Wagner's leadership skills are nothing new.
“He’s always been a leader, he’s always had the juice," third-year defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson said.
Making plays, as he did with an interception for a touchdown against the 49ers and the blocked field goal against Minnesota, also are nothing new.
“That’s what Hall-of-Famers do, they make big plays like that," safety Bradley McDougald said. "That’s Bobby, he’s going to make them big splash plays and I hope he keeps on making them. He’s a great player, he studies the game, he’s always in the right position to make plays. That’s what you see Hall-of-Famers do.”
Being a leader as the lone veteran voice that also has a grand history with the team is new.
"He’s a true, middle linebacker," McDougald said. "When I say middle linebacker, that’s what you think of, that’s what you need. He’s the heart and soul of the defense, somebody tough and strong in the middle, that’s where all the stuff happens, in the middle and in the front."
The long list of superlatives could only belong to a player that should be signed to a long-term deal as soon as possible. But will Seattle step up next summer or make Wagner play out his existing contract as the franchise did with Wright and Thomas?
Wagner signed a contract extension in August of 2015 worth $43 million with $22 million guaranteed. The deal made him the highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL at the time. He is scheduled to make $10.6 million next season. Thomas entered this year with $8.5 million remaining on his deal. He famously and acrimoniously held out for an extension that would give him security before begrudgingly returning to action before the first game of the season with no new contract. Three weeks later he went down for the season with a broken leg during a win at Arizona.
As it stands right now, it appears unlikely that Seattle will resign Thomas or Wright, who entered this season with one year remaining on his deal at $7.2 million. Seattle has done just fine on the field without Thomas and Wright and now will have their combined $15.7 million to use in free agency or on extensions for current players, including quarterback Russell Wilson, who will command a huge payday.
Could one of those extended players be Wagner, who turns 29 in June?
From Seattle's perspective, extending Wagner would expose the franchise to the same predicament that occurred with safety Kam Chancellor. He received an extension with one year remaining on his deal prior to the 2017 season then suffered a career-ending neck injury. He will make about $25 million over three seasons without playing a down.
Given Wagner's age, it would appear likely that Seattle would take a wait-and-see approach with Wagner knowing that they have him locked up next year and he will turn 30 in the summer of 2020 when he becomes a free agent.
The next question then of course becomes what would Wagner's response be to being forced to enter the final year of his deal without an extension? He certainly would he want the security Chancellor received but Thomas did not before the safety's worst fears were realized. But would Wagner, 29, follow the example of Thomas, also 29, and hold out knowing that the team never budged on extending the future Hall of Fame safety?
Wagner said earlier this season that he would hope that the franchise would take care of Wright because he did the right thing by not holding out in the final year of his deal. Wagner's statement almost seemed like a "hint" toward his situation, which he has not openly discussed.
Here is a suggestion on how this should play out: Seattle could offer Wagner a two-year extension worth about $15 million in guaranteed money and $25 million total. That deal, along with the final year on his current deal, would give Wagner at least just over $25 million over two seasons. If he were to remain healthy and productive and finish the deal, he would receive a total of $35.6 million for three years and could be in line for a new short-term deal at the age of 32.
Otherwise, Wagner would have to take a chance on himself, play out the final year of his deal and enter free agency at the age of 30. It would seem unlikely that he would receive more than about $12 million per season on the open market and he certainly wouldn't be given very many years on any new deal.
We shall see how this all plays out. But given all of the recent fallout from legendary Seahawks departing in rapid succession, it would be nice to see Seattle and a star player with connections to the Super Bowl years stick around.