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How Bobby Wagner’s Contract Dispute Reflects the Shifting Value of Inside Linebackers

Seattle’s perennial All-Pro is up for what should be a market-resetting extension. He’ll almost certainly get it, but his price tag is about more than just his outsize impact on the field: As NFL offenses exploit the middle of the field more and more, the defenders tasked with that area should see their value rise.

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At the Seahawks minicamp earlier this month, Seattle’s most important defensive player was just a spectator. Bobby Wagner, the 29-year-old linebacker and five-time All Pro, spent his time instructing his younger teammates but skipping drills as part of his ongoing contract dispute. Wagner is set to make more than $14 million in the final season of the four-year extension he signed in 2015, but he’s made it known that until he gets long-term security with a new deal, he plans to remain on the sideline.

Now, before Seahawks Twitter goes into a panic, we should acknowledge that all signs point to Wagner getting a new extension before the season. The Associated Press has voted Wagner a first-team or second-team All Pro after each of the past five seasons. Head coach Pete Carroll noted in March that Wagner’s dominance as a player and his role within the organization have been vital to Seattle’s success and that “Bobby’s going to be a Seahawk.” Even with Russell Wilson’s new megadeal on the books, the franchise is currently projected to have more than $75 million in cap space for the 2020-21 season. General manager John Schneider didn’t trade away pass rusher Frank Clark—and avoid the $20.8 million annual price tag the Chiefs put on him—to not retain one of the league’s best defensive players in the middle of his prime.

The question at this point isn’t whether Wagner will get a new deal from the Seahawks. It’s what that deal will—and should—look like, based on both Wagner’s track record and the way NFL teams are shifting how they could be valuing certain defensive positions. This spring, new Jets inside linebacker C.J. Mosley reset the market at the position with a five-year, $85 million deal that includes $51 million in guarantees (all paid out in the first three seasons). Mosley’s deal set a new bar for average annual value at $17 million (topping Kwon Alexander’s $13.5 million, also signed this March) and guarantees (blowing away Luke Kuechly’s $34.4 million from his 2015 extension). In May, Wagner—who’s representing himself in negotiations—made it clear that he plans to surpass Mosley’s numbers when he eventually puts pen to paper. “I mean, the number is the number, the market is the market,” Wagner said, according to Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times. “That’s the top (of the) linebacker market. That is the standard. And so that is the plan to break that.”

There’s no sense in arguing whether Wagner deserves a more lucrative contract than Mosley. That’s obvious. Mosley is a solid, reliable middle linebacker who’s been a driving force behind the Ravens’ defensive consistency for years. But Wagner is one of the best players in all of football, regardless of position. Now that Seattle has the franchise tag available after extending Wilson, they could theoretically choose to play hardball and use the tag to pay Wagner less than market value in 2020 (according to CBS Sports’ Joel Corry, about $16.8 million, based on a 120 percent increase of Wagner’s 2019 cap hit). But if both sides are negotiating in good faith, Seattle should acknowledge that Wagner deserves to easily surpass what two straight franchise tags would pay him in 2020 and 2021 and reset the market at his position. What I’m wondering, though, is why he should he stop there.

When Aaron Donald was fighting for a new contract with the Rams in 2018, the largest deal for an interior defensive lineman belonged to Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox. As part of the Eagles’ rash of homegrown extensions in the summer of 2016, Cox signed a six-year, $103 million deal with $63.3 million guaranteed (a total Cox will hit by the end of this season). Based on traditional positional and market value, Donald’s representatives could have just looked at Cox’s totals, leapfrogged them by just enough to boast that Donald was the highest-paid player at his position, and call it a day. But they went a step further. By that point, Donald had been named first-team All-Pro in four straight seasons and was coming off his first Defensive Player of the Year award. Rather than compare Donald’s value solely with interior rushers, Donald and his agent took into account salaries at other positions. Before last summer, Von Miller was the highest-paid defensive player in the league with a $19 million AAV, $70 million in practical guarantees, and a three-year cash total of about $61 million. As the rightly anointed top defensive player in the league, Donald received a deal that jumped all of Millers’s numbers ($22.5 million AAV, $86.9 million guaranteed, and a three-year cash total of $67 million).

Part of Donald’s ability to bypass the standard extension route and transcend typical ideas about positional value is because he’s a generational talent. In 2017, Pro Football Focus credited him with a league-leading 91 total pressures, despite him playing on the interior for almost every snap. That shouldn’t be possible. But there was also an ideological shift working in his favor. As quarterbacks’ release times have sped up in recent years, interior pressure has become more important than it’s ever been. Donald’s impact isn’t just based on how often he creates pressure; it’s also buoyed by how fast he creates it. With those two factors in mind, no one blinked when a defensive tackle blew away every edge rusher contract in football on his new deal.

Bobby Wagner may not be Aaron Donald (no one is), but he’s the closest equivalent in terms of on-field impact. Donald and Wagner are the only two NFL players who have been named first-team All-Pro in each of the past three seasons. Like Donald, Wagner has an outsize effect on games compared with preconceived expectations about his position. Against the run, he’s one of the most efficient movers and tacklers in the league. Against the pass, he’s made huge strides on his way to becoming one of the top coverage linebackers in football (working equally well against running backs and against tight ends) while also adding a ton of value as a pass rusher. Among linebackers with at least 45 pass-rush snaps in 2018, Wagner finished fourth in PFF’s pass rush productivity metric (which calculates how often a player disrupted a dropback on his pass-rushing snaps).

It’s not as simple as saying that Wagner’s value is a result of him transcending his position, though. Wagner’s multifaceted influence on his team’s defense points to just how valuable inside linebackers can be in the modern NFL. As nickel packages have become the league’s base defense, old-school notions about a move linebacker’s role have become outdated. Both off-ball linebackers have to increase their depth and width in coverage as they defend the most important area of the field. Rule changes (such as those preventing defenders from hitting a defensive receiver above the neck) have made the middle of the field more vulnerable than it’s ever been for defenses, and the NFL’s smartest offensive minds know it. Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes II attempted 283 of his 580 passes (48.8 percent) between the numbers. For Tom Brady, that figure was 48.4 percent (276 of 570), and 31.9 percent of his total throws went between the numbers within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. That’s where Wagner lives. As the middle of the field becomes more important, players tasked with protecting it become more valuable.

The Seahawks’ own team-building decisions also point to a counterintuitive view of positional value. Rather than retain 26-year-old edge rusher Frank Clark, Seattle dealt him to the Chiefs for Kansas City’s 2019 first-round pick, its 2020 second-round pick, and a third-round pick swap in 2019. Upon trading for Clark, the Chiefs gave him a massive five-year, $104 million deal with $62.3 million guaranteed. Seattle decided to prioritize Wagner over retaining Clark, which seems to indicate that he has more value to the team. In determining the numbers in his new deal, Wagner’s baseline shouldn’t just be Mosley’s contract. It should be the new deals signed by Clark and Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence this offseason ($21 million AAV with $65 million guaranteed).

Wagner may not be atop the defensive player hierarchy in the NFL, but he’s damn near close. Properly compensating his overall impact would make Wagner the fifth defensive player in the NFL to get a deal worth $20 million or more per season. It’s possible that neither he nor the Seahawks want to break the mold, and they choose to base Wagner’s extension on Mosley’s figures and nothing else. But every once in a while, the confluence of a player’s talent and shifting notions of player value allows a player to smash the typical framework. Bobby Wagner is one of those players.