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K.J. Wright was expecting a typical rookie season for a player selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
You know, play a little special teams and wait a lot to get on the field as a linebacker. Wright, however, has turned out to be an atypical performer this season. He’s not only starting at strongside linebacker, he’s coming off his most versatile and productive performance as the Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s game against the Bears in Chicago.
But then Wright is one of those uniquely talented players that Pete Carroll has been collecting since he was hired as coach 23 months ago.
“He’s a very unique kid,” Carroll said this week. “He’s learned so much and it’s come so easy to him. We were surprised by that early on, but now it’s just a big positive for us.”
Speaking of big, the first thing that stands out about Wright is how he stands out on the field – even when he’s just standing there. At 6 feet 4, 246 pounds, he is the team’s biggest linebacker – four inches taller than middle linebacker and leading tackler David Hawthorne; nine pounds heavier than weakside ’backer Leroy Hill.
Even more impressive is how quickly he has grasped the nuances of the aggressive style of defense the Seahawks are playing. And that has to do with what sits atop his imposing body. Wright is football wise beyond his years.
Linebacker coach Ken Norton noticed it right away.
“He’s the type of player that listens and then knows how to transfer it to the field very quickly,” Norton said during training camp, when the coaches were just learning about the rookie class after having no offseason because of the 136-day lockout.
“When you think of the great players, he has those intangibles. Now, let’s see if it shows up on game day.”
Wright’s rookie season has been a series of show-and-tell performances.
He started the season opener against the 49ers in the middle because Hawthorne was out with a knee injury that continues to bother him. Wright played well enough that the coaches decided they had to find a way to get him on the field more, which manifested itself in the trade of former first-round draft choice Aaron Curry to the Oakland Raiders. That opened the strong side for Wright.
As impressive as he’s been, Wright was at his best in Monday night’s game against the St. Louis Rams. He made a season-high eight tackles; had one sack, and was close to getting a second; added two hits on Rams QB Sam Bradford; and had an interception in his hands but couldn’t hold it.
“He’s kind of just a guy that makes plays,” Carroll said. “When he’s given the opportunity he comes through. He’s very consistent in the regard.”
As with all his players, show Carroll you can handle one thing and he’ll give you another. That’s how Wright ended up rushing the passer against the Rams. And Wright did all that against the Rams after filling in for the sore-kneed Hawthorne during the week in practice and then moving to his strongside spot on game day.
“You get a guy with a brain like K.J. has, and you’ve just got to give him a plan,” Hawthorne said. “He’s real good at retaining information, and really did skip a lot of the rookie-mistake process just being that bright and that dedicated.”
Wright is taking all of this in stride, and with that sly smile of his – the praise, the production, the position he has been thrust into that could have been a predicament if he had not turned it into a positive.
“I feel I’m improving,” he said. “Each week, I’m getting a better feel for the game, a better feel for how they’re trying to attack us. I’m just trying to become a better pro as the weeks go on.”
And he really does seem to be getting better by the week. He’s tied for fifth on the team with 46 tackles, and 18 have come the past three weeks – as well as both his sacks.
Where to begin in explaining how all this is happening? At the top, and for Wright that’s what’s under his helmet.
“My football IQ is real high, and it’s always been high,” said Wright, who was in line to receive his diploma in April when the Seahawks called to inform him he’d just be drafted. “I’ve been watching football since I was little kid. I just understand the game real well. It just comes to me.
“It’s a great attribute that I have.”
Sunday’s game will be linebacker showcase in what is expected to be a defense-dominated day. On one side, there’s Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, who rank 1-2 in tackles for the Bears and have 13 Pro Bowls between them. On the other side, there’s Hawthorne, who is looking to become the sixth player in franchise history to lead the team in tackles three consecutive seasons; and Hill, who is having a turn-back-the-clock season in his seventh season with 76 tackles (third on the team) and three sacks (tied for second).
But keep an eye on No. 50, as well, because Wright continues to use his unique combination of brains and brawn in unique – and productive – ways.
“It’s my dream come true,” he said. “I really wasn’t expecting to be doing so much my rookie season. I’m real blessed to be in the position I’m in.”
That feeling is mutual among the coaches.
As defensive coordinator Gus Bradley puts it, “I think he’s found a home.”