INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner were drafted 28 picks apart by the Seahawks in 2012.
They spent the ensuing decade becoming friends and two of their generation's best players at their respective positions during Seattle's decade of success.
After 10 seasons of going against each other solely in practice, Wilson and Wagner will face off in competition for the first time this weekend when Wilson's Denver Broncos (4-10) visit the Los Angeles Rams (4-10) for Christmas.
With both of their new teams headed to early offseasons after beginning the season with much loftier ambitions, the circumstances are not exactly what either player expected in their first season after parting in Seattle.
But Wagner is still looking forward to this opportunity to settle a longstanding practice debate between these friends.
“Everything was pretty much live, and the checks and going back and forth, all of that was full speed — but the hitting wasn’t," Wagner said with a grin. "You could never touch him. He said I would never catch him. So we’ll see.”
Wilson is back in action for the Broncos after missing last week's game following a trip through the concussion protocol. He is on pace for his least impressive NFL season during this rocky landing in Denver, with career lows in completion percentage, yards per completion. passer rating and touchdown passes.
Meanwhile, Wagner didn't get a Pro Bowl nod this week despite his outstanding season for the Rams, whose defense has persevered and played well despite support from the worst offense in the NFL by total yards. Wagner has been the standout of the group, leading the Rams with 118 tackles and playing superbly at the heart of the unit.
Wagner doesn't see Wilson's declining numbers as a reason for confidence, knowing Wilson is one of the NFL's most electrifying playmakers when at his best. The Rams linebacker will count on his years of experience with Wilson's overall game to help him.
“When you see somebody for 10 years, you kind of know what they like and what they don’t like,” Wagner said. “But he’s evolved as a player, and especially as he moves there, there’s little things that he does differently. But at the end of the day, once you get going and start hitting and all that other stuff, it slows down, and the concepts that he likes and the things he likes to do will come to the surface, and (I'll) hopefully be able to help take advantage of those things.”
Baker Mayfield is slated to make his second home start for the Rams after leading them to a stunning 17-16 victory over the Raiders earlier this month in his Los Angeles debut. Mayfield's numbers with his new team are modest, but his playmaking ability should give the Rams a chance against Denver's solid defense.
Mayfield studied the Broncos' defense just last month before his Carolina Panthers' 23-10 victory over Denver with Sam Darnold behind center.
“You don’t want to just say, ‘I’ve already prepped for them, I know what they’re about,'" Mayfield said. “You still want to go back and run through all the new clips and see the different nuances.”
Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and special teams coach Dwayne Stukes were with the Rams when they won the Super Bowl last season. But Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett won’t be asking them for too many insights into the creative ways of Rams coach Sean McVay.
“That’s always very tricky, because the Rams know that we know,” Hackett explained. “It goes back and forth. I think that’s the chess game. In my past, I’ve gone through that and found all the answers out, and then it didn’t help us at all. You want to utilize them, but not over-utilize them.”
Evero was the secondary coach/passing game coordinator for the Rams, while Stukes served as an assistant under special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis.
“I do have a lot of love for a lot of people in that building,” Stukes said. “But at the same time, I want to go out there and dominate and I want to win.”
RUN IT BACK
Wilson will attempt to get back into the groove he found in Denver's offense two weeks ago against Kansas City. He passed for 247 yards and rushed for 57 more before being ruled out with a concussion early in the fourth quarter. The Rams' defense has been their strength, ranking fourth in the NFL against the run.
The Broncos went inside their fieldhouse for practice Thursday after a blast of cold air sent temperatures plummeting to below zero (with wind chills around minus-30). It’s quite a contrast to what awaits in Los Angeles, where the temperature will be around 80 degrees Sunday.
The holiday game is airing on both CBS and on Nickelodeon, which will deliver a kid-tailored broadcast including unusual graphics and plenty of the network’s signature green slime, both virtual and actual.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.
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