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Pete Carroll is fond of saying that the biggest jump in a player’s development comes from his first season as a starter to his second.
Like K.J. Wright? Not exactly. Yes, Wright is in his second season as the Seahawks’ starter at strongside linebacker. But Carroll won’t go there when asked about Wright’s impressive play in the team’s 2-1 start, even though he leads the team with 25 tackles, has broken up two passes and forced a fumble for a defense that ranks No. 4 in the league as the Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s divisional game against the Rams in St. Louis.
“In my analysis, he had a good year last year,” Carroll said. “So I don’t think he’s made as big a jump as some of the other guys were making because he did so well as a rookie.”
That he did. A fourth-round draft choice out of Mississippi State last year, Wright impressed linebackers coach Ken Norton with his heady play during training camp and the preseason. When David Hawthorne couldn’t play in the season opener, Wright started at middle linebacker and made five tackles. Wright then stepped in as the starter on the strong side in Week 4, and hasn’t stepped out – prompting the trade last season of Aaron Curry, the fourth pick overall in the 2009 draft.
But the 6-foot-4, 246-pound Wright hasn’t just picked up this season where he left off last season; he has picked up his game.
“He certainly is all over the field,” Carroll said.
As in, blanketing tight end D.J. Williams to force an incompletion and then stopping running back Cedric Benson for a 1-yard loss during one series in Monday’s night victory over the Green Bay Packers; or teaming with strong safety Kam Chancellor to stop Benson for a 3-yard loss and also tackling Benson for no gain on a pass play; or chasing down wide receiver Jordy Nelson to prevent the Packers from converting on a third-and-26 play.
But also as in, playing middle linebacker in the nickel and bandit sub packages as well as on the strong side in the base defense. In the first three games, Wright has been on the field for 98.5 percent of the defensive plays – compared to 51.1 percent last season, when he started 12 games and usually came off the field in the sub packages where he’s now being featured.
“We put a lot on his shoulders,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “But he can handle it. He’s really a detailed and prideful person, and he does not like to make mistakes.”
Which Wright just doesn’t do very often.
“He plays like a seasoned vet and the guys in their first year look up to him like he’s been around forever,” Carroll said. “In that regard, he’s really gained a lot of respect from the team and the guys around him because of what he bring
“You can see that we definitely have grown, and K.J. is an example of that.”
Just ask veteran weakside linebacker Leroy Hill and rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Said Hill, who’s fourth on the team with 13 tackles: “K.J. is getting better per game it seems like. He’s making more and more plays, and a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage. He’s long, he’s rangy, so once he gets off a block and backs try to get around him it’s hard for them. Like I said, he’s progressing per game and when he reaches his peak it’s going to be scary.”
Offered Wagner, who’s third on the team with 15 tackles – after replacing Hawthorne, who signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency: “K.J. makes a lot of tackles, a lot of open-field tackles. He’s just very smart and he plays fast. He’s definitely got a good grasp of the defense, so he’s definitely helped me out in this process.”
Wright’s take? He’s just doing what he’s always done – making plays.
He was an all-state linebacker at Olive Branch (Miss.) High School as a senior, when he had 91 tackles and 13 sacks. At Mississippi State, he started 35 games and finished his career with 259 tackles and nine sacks. Last season, he had 61 tackles for the Seahawks, as well as two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Monday night, he had a career-high 11 tackles – two more than his previous best, which came in the season-opening loss to the still-unbeaten Cardinals in Arizona.
“I’m just more active out there because I’m feeling a lot more comfortable and reading stuff a lot better,” he said. “I’m seeing things much faster, so I can react faster. I’m just playing free and having fun.”
It shows, as Wright continues to show up game after game, down after down.