NFL linebacker Bobby Wagner wanted another challenge as he prepares for life after football. So he represented himself on the 2022 free agent market after he was released in a cost-saving move by the Seattle Seahawks.
On Monday, Wagner, 31, agreed to a five-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams that could reach $65 million in value. The agreement includes team- and player-based incentives that Wagner said are “achievable.” He called it “a win for me and a win for them.”
In an interview with CNBC on Monday night, Wagner discussed his new contract and explained why he again negotiated terms without using an agent. It’s not the first time Wagner elected to forgo representation, but he admitted this time was more difficult.
“But,” he said, “I’m always looking to challenge myself not just on the football field but outside the football field.”
Setting aside emotions
“Crazy part about all this,” Wagner tweeted on March 11, “I played there for 10 years & I didn’t even hear it from them that I wasn’t coming back.”
That Twitter response came days after reports surfaced that the Seahawks would release the eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker. The cutthroat move saved the team $16 million. The club, which competes in the NFC West alongside the Rams, is rebuilding. They also traded their Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos. Head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider took the blame for the lack of communication with Wagner.
On Monday night, Wagner explained his frustration with how the Seahawks handled the matter.
“I never had any intentions of leaving,” Wagner told CNBC. “I planned on playing my whole career there. So, when it happened, you’re frustrated, and then you add on how you found out, you’re even more frustrated.” Wagner added he “took a minute to let the feelings out, and then locked in.”
Asked for a request for comment on the matter, a Seahawks spokesperson emailed CNBC, “Terrific player, wish him the best.”
The Seahawks drafted Wagner in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft. He has represented himself in contract talks since 2015 when he landed a $43 million deal from the Seahawks.
This time was different, however.
“The first time was a little easier because I knew the team, the GM and the club history,” Wagner said. “Free agency this time was a bit different because you have to reach out to all the GMs – it was another challenge that I wanted to take on for myself.”
The NFL Players Association keeps a list of general managers’ contact information. Wagner obtained the list and “started to send out text and emails reminding the teams that I represent myself, and this is how they can reach me if they want my services,” he said.
Inside the $65 million deal
Wagner said he examined past contracts, players’ statistics and current NFL deals for linebackers to help determine his value. Another stigma he needed to overcome was age.
Wagner said older linebackers aren’t valued correctly due to age as teams favor young players. But he referenced other Pro Bowl linebackers who played “well beyond age 31,” including Baltimore Ravens icon Ray Lewis who retired at age 37. Other greats in the over-31 club: former Rams linebacker London Fletcher and New Orleans Saints Pro Bowler Sam Mills played until 38, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks played until 35.
“There’s this idea that you can’t play as long as you want to,” Wagner said.
Teams, including the Ravens and Dallas Cowboys, reached out. During negotiations, teams had to get over “the idea that if they send something low or send something that may not be appealing to me, it’s going to be offensive,” Wagner said.
“I felt like I was in a good situation where I knew how to handle my emotions and what stage of my career I’m in,” he added. “I just wanted to get the right deal for me.”
The Rams offered that deal.
Wagner’s contract is really a five-year, $50 million deal that can reach $65 million if he achieves incentives. They include Wagner playing 90% of defensive snaps; the Rams make the playoffs and finish a top five defense. Other extras include nearly $10 million in roster bonuses and another Pro Bowl selection, according to Spotrac, a website that tracks sports contracts.
“They are very achievable incentives,” he said. Wagner added he needed to study teams’ salary cap space to “know what team you’re working with. Some teams don’t have cap space, and some don’t have the flexibility to work with the numbers. So ultimately, you have to create your market.”
The Super Bowl champion Rams deal also met other criteria: Wagner, a Los Angeles native, gets to play near home. And he plans to keep a residence in Seattle, too.
Wagner also said he had a real flirtation with the Cowboys. “That was a real thing. We had conversations. I love [Cowboys defensive coordinator] Dan Quinn and have a lot of respect for him. But between their needs and what they were willing to spend, we couldn’t agree. But there was mutual interest,” he said.
“Between the Rams and Cowboys – those are teams that have been around for a long time and have a lot of history,” Wagner added. “Being able to be a part of any of those franchises boosts your notoriety. And I landed on one.”
Wagner aims to be an NFL team president
When discussing the decision to represent himself, Wagner requested to end the narrative that there’s “animosity or I feel negative” about using NFL agents. “At the end of the day, I don’t do it to say I’m an agent. I do it for growth.”
In addition, Wagner said he was able to create more relationships with NFL team executives and learn more about the business of football. The goal here is positioning himself as a future team president.
Wagner would be one of the few Black team presidents in NFL history if he reached that goal.
The NFL added its first Black team president in Washington Commanders executive Jason Wright in 2020. The Ravens hired the second in February 2022, bringing in NFL and NBA team executive Sashi Brown. And throughout pro basketball, the NBA slipped from a league-high seven Black team CEOs in 2007 to only three now. And MLB lost its first Black chief executive after Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter resigned.
Wagner noted most players go into coaching or media after their careers. But he’s aiming higher.
“That’s the box people put you in,” said Wagner. “I’m not saying anything is wrong with that, but that’s the box we get put in. They put us in this box where we can’t be a president or CEO, and it’s like, ‘Why can’t I if I understand the business?'”
He further explained: “What happens with players is we get stuck in our bubble. We get stuck in our world, and regardless of how long you play – three years or 10 – we get so stuck and think that the world is a certain way. And then when we get out there in the real world, we haven’t experienced anything outside of just being a part of a football team.”
Added Wagner, “If I start where I started, understand the business, and understand what happens in the locker room, to me, that makes me more valuable.”