Poona Ford calls Seahawks teammate K.J. Wright “unc,” short for uncle. Bobby Wagner says his first impression of Wright in 2012 was that he had “an old soul.”
“He’s listening to older music,” Wagner recalled. “He didn’t know any of the young music that was coming out. He made me feel like we was eight years apart but was only two years apart.”
But if Wright can give off a vibe of being something of an elder statesman of the Seahawks — he’s older than all but four others on the team — his play on the field says otherwise.
At 31, Wright is having one of his better seasons, and one perhaps as important as any since he was drafted in 2011.
Wright’s ability to move to strongside linebacker from the weakside spot he had played almost exclusively since 2013 helped the Seahawks replace injured Bruce Irvin and cleared the way for rookie Jordyn Brooks to enter the lineup at weakside linebacker.
The solidification of the linebacking trio with Wright on the strongside and Brooks at the weakside has played no small role in the Seahawks’ defensive turnaround in the second half of the season.
“He’s playing terrific football, and maybe even to his surprise a bit that he’s been so active playing outside,” coach Pete Carroll said this week.
Wright still plays some inside, usually moving back to the weakside spot in the nickel defense with Brooks coming off.
Sunday against the Jets, Wright played 40 of the 43 snaps that the starting defense was on the field, and Brooks played 18.
Wright has made that work by turning in one of his better seasons in pass coverage. Pro Football Focus has Wright with a 75.9 grade in coverage, the second-best of his career and 11th-best among all NFL linebackers. His overall grade is 12th-best of all linebackers this year and the third-best of his career.
All of which leads to the question of Wright’s future.
The Seahawks selected Brooks 27th overall during the NFL draft in April with a long-term plan to play him at weakside linebacker. It was then revealed that Wright had undergone shoulder surgery, and some wondered if he would be on the roster this season. His $5 million salary was not guaranteed, leading to speculation if that might be too high for a 31-year-old coming off surgery and playing the same spot as a first-round draft choice (though Seattle had tipped its hand in March when it exercised a $1 million roster bonus for Wright).
But Wright has not missed any time and has played so well that he will cash in even more — Wright can make an additional $1.5 million if he plays 80% of the snaps this season or an extra $1 million if he plays 55%. With three games left, Wright has played 87.42% of Seattle’s defensive snaps.
When Wright signed a two-year contract with Seattle in the spring of 2019, he said it accomplished a goal of playing 10 years in the league.
It was tempting to think it also stood as a potential finish line for Wright. He has said he intends to settle in Seattle once his playing days are done, and that he’d like to play his entire career with the Seahawks. When Wright signed that deal he was coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season in which he had knee surgery during the preseason and played just five regular-season games.
But with the way Wright is playing now, Carroll said, “I don’t know why we’d be talking about anything other than playing football for as long he wants to.”
After the 40-3 victory Sunday over the Jets, Wright indicated he wants to keep playing.
“I got my goal,” he said. “I’m playing really good, and so when this happens I’m going to sit back and see what’s next for me. But as of now I’m looking really good. … Pretty happy Year 10 is going in the right direction.”
But teams can’t keep everybody, and the Seahawks have no shortage of decisions to make after the season — among the pending free agents are running back Chris Carson and cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar. Seattle also is expected to try to sign safety Jamal Adams to a contract extension that could pay him between $15 million and $16 million per year.
And Seattle is listed as having just under $18 million in cap space for the 2021 season by OvertheCap.com, assuming a lowered overall cap number for all NFL teams of $175 million due to COVID-19-related decreases in revenue. (Wagner and quarterback Russell Wilson account for $49 million of that).
“I can’t imagine this team without him,” defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. said. “He’s that good a player. He makes everybody around him good, he makes everything work.”
As he has done several times in recent years, Wagner lobbied for the Seahawks to keep Wright.
“I think whatever he wants to do, they should make sure that happens,” Wagner said.
But when asked what it would be like to play without Wright, Wagner also acknowledged the reality of the NFL.
“We’ve been playing together so long it would definitely be different,” Wagner said. “But it’s a business, so at some point it’s going to happen.”
Wright, though, is making a strong case for it not to happen anytime soon.