The best NFL player from a Utah school in 2019 would have been content to play basketball in high school, except the team desperately needed a linebacker and one of the players begged him to try the sport. And when he showed signs of developing into a good football player, he was recruited to Utah State during the program's worst era.
That background makes Bobby Wagner’s rise to the NFL’s elite level seem unlikely, but it has happened in Seattle. The Seahawks linebacker is at the top of his profession, having personally negotiated the highest annual salary at his position this summer and being ranked the No. 15 overall player by NFL.com.
Described by The Spokesman-Review as “the unquestioned soul of Seattle’s defense,” Wagner is at the heart of the NFL’s most Utah-centric team. The Seahawks also feature defensive end Ziggy Ansah of BYU, linebacker Cody Barton and Marquise Blair of Utah, defensive lineman Bryan Mone of Highland High School and receiver John Ursua of Cedar High School.
Barton, Blair and Ursua are rookies who each would love to have a pro football career like Wagner's. He established himself right away as a second-round draft pick in 2012, with an impact that made former USU defensive coordinator Kevin Clune once say, “I knew he would be successful … but I didn't know it was going to be this fast.”
FIVE MORE IMPACT PLAYERS FROM UTAH
Kyle Van Noy, New England Patriots
The former BYU linebacker has earned two championship rings and made three Super Bowl appearances since being traded from Detroit to New England in October 2016.
Van Noy has thrived in the Patriots' defense as a versatile player who helped his group hold the Los Angeles Rams' dynamic offense to three points in the Super Bowl. He also recently received the team's community service award for his foundation's efforts in helping adopted, foster and disadvantaged youth.
Eric Weddle, Los Angeles Rams
In his 13th pro season, the former Utah defensive back has joined a Rams team that may take him to his first Super Bowl. More accurately, Weddle could lead the Rams back to that stage. He's highly valued in the NFL at age 34, having signed a two-year, $10.5 million contract as a free agent after playing in Baltimore. His career is winding down, but “I'm going to give it all I've got this year,” Weddle told ESPN.
Besides helping the Rams' defensive players, Weddle has advised quarterback Jared Goff about reading defenses. He has blended so well into the organization that “it feels like I've been here my whole career,” Weddle said.
Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
In his rookie year after playing for BYU, Warner led the 49ers in tackles. Pro Football Focus also graded him with the most missed tackles on the team, but he improved throughout the season and is expected to do more this year, due to his football intelligence.
“He can take in information better than anyone I have been around,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said.
Matt Gay, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Buccaneers fans generally questioned the team's use of a fifth-round draft pick for the former Utah kicker, remaining scarred by Tampa Bay's once waiving a second-round choice after one season.
Gay likely changed some minds in the preseason, with two game-winning field goals, in addition to matching the longest field goal (55 yards) ever kicked at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field. He also made a 53-yarder against Dallas, in the process of winning the job over veteran Cairo Santos.
Taysom Hill, New Orleans Saints
His future as an NFL quarterback is uncertain, but the BYU alumnus has become more than merely a subject of curiosity as Saints coach Sean Payton keeps finding ways to use Hill.
He will contribute again this season on special teams and in offensive packages, while hoping to become the eventual successor to quarterback Drew Brees in New Orleans.
Recruited by Brent Guy's USU coaching staff, Wagner came to Logan from Colony High School in Ontario, Calif. He had played only flag football until his junior year, when he joined the football team and started making tackles instinctively, learning the fundamentals later. He developed steadily in Gary Andersen's Aggie program. In 2012, Wagner and former Seattle running back Robert Turbin became the highest-drafted pair of USU players since 1980.
In his fourth pro season, Wagner made a team-high 10 tackles in a 43-8 defeat of Denver in the Super Bowl, and he just keeps getting better. The Seahawks rewarded him with a three-year, $54 million contract. Wagner represented himself, saying if team executives were going to list any of his shortcomings during the contract talks, “I wanted them to say it to my face. I could take it.”
They couldn’t have made many arguments against him. Wagner also said he wanted to gain “real world experience” of researching his value. His football earnings as of age 29 may make that unnecessary, but that comment illustrates how Wagner is always trying to improve. On the field, Wagner’s maintaining his high standard of play is all the Seahawks could want.
UTAHNS ON NFL ROSTERS
Players from Utah schools on NFL teams’ 53-man active rosters:
Ziggy Ansah, DE, Seattle
Michael Davis, DB, Los Angeles Chargers
John Denney, LS, Miami
Taysom Hill, QB, New Orleans
Bronson Kaufusi, DE, New York Jets
Harvey Langi, LB, New York Jets
Daniel Sorensen, DB, Kansas City
Sione Takitaki, LB, Cleveland
Kyle Van Noy, LB, New England
Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco
Jamaal Williams, RB, Green Bay
Cody Barton, LB, Seattle
Marquise Blair, DB, Seattle
Tony Bergstrom, OL, Washington
Garett Bolles, OL, Denver
Devontae Booker, RB, Denver
Matt Gay, K, Tampa Bay
Star Lotulelei, DT, Buffalo
Tim Patrick, WR, Denver
Eric Rowe, DB, Miami
Sam Tevi, OL, Los Angeles Chargers
Eric Weddle, DB, Los Angeles Rams
Marcus Williams, DB, New Orleans
Mitch Wishnowsky, P, San Francisco
Maurice Alexander, LB, Buffalo
Kyler Fackrell, LB, Green Bay
Tyler Larsen, OL, Carolina
Dallin Leavitt, DB, Oakland
Donald Penn, OL, Washington
Nick Vigil, LB, Cincinnati
Patrick Scales, LS, Chicago
Darwin Thompson, RB, Kansas City
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle
Miles Killebrew, DB, Detroit
LeShaun Sims, DB, Tennessee
Taron Johnson, DB, Buffalo
UTAH HIGH SCHOOLS
Jordan Devey (American Fork), OL, Oakland
Kaden Elliss (Judge Memorial), LB, New Orleans
Andre James (Herriman), OL, Oakland
Bryan Mone (Highland), DL, Seattle
Dalton Schultz (Bingham), TE, Dallas
Xavier Su'a-Filo (Timpview), OL, Dallas
John Ursua (Cedar), WR, Seattle