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K.J. Wright: A linebacker for all reasons
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, the two-time leading tackler on the Seahawks’ fast, physical and aggressive defense, remains sidelined with a sore hamstring. Bruce Irvin, the incumbent starter at strong-side linebacker, is on the physically unable to perform list after having offseason hip surgery. Malcolm Smith, the MVP in Super Bowl XLVIII and next man up on the strong side, also is out after having offseason ankle surgery.
But K.J. Wright is still here.
Here? During Tuesday’s practice at the Seahawks’ Training Camp presented by Bing, Wright was here, there and seemingly everywhere as the only starter standing. He intercepted two passes and tipped a third incomplete. He blitzed on passing downs and plugged gaps on running plays.
“That’s what I do. I’m the best pass defender on this team,” Wright said after practice, just as linebacker coach Ken Norton, Jr. walked past and half-jokingly reminded him to be humble.
It’s OK, because Wright was joking, and punctuated that point with a laugh. He’s well aware that the All-Pro duo of cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas are the best players at their positions in the NFL. And that on-the-mend All-Pro strong safety Kam Chancellor is no slouch, either. And that cornerback Byron Maxwell intercepted four passes in his first five NFL starts after stepping in for an injured teammate in December.
“I was just keying on the quarterback and really focused in today,” Wright said. “So I was able to get my hands on some passes.”
And what Wright brings to a defense that led the league in average points and yards allowed last season is no joke. He has contributed 96 and 80 tackles the past two seasons, as well as nine passes defensed.
“K.J. is one of those guys this year, you can see a lot of stuff clicking for him,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “He’s faster than he’s ever been, and that relates to the work he put in during the offseason. I feel his speed more. I feel him as a rusher more. You hear his knowledge of what we’re trying to do out on the field in the calls he makes.
“So I’m not surprised that he’s playing well, because I can remember in the dark of winter he was here putting in the work.”
What’s next? For Wright, it’s increasing the number of turnovers he forces.
Wright showed that in practice on Tuesday.
And Wright’s all-round, sideline-to-sideline game will be needed Thursday night when the Seahawks play their preseason opener against the Broncos in Denver. Without Wagner. Without Irvin. Without Smith.
And that only makes Wright’s presence more important, because rookie free agent Brock Coyle is subbing for Wagner and Mike Morgan, primarily a special teams contributor in his first three seasons, has stepped in for Irvin and Smith.
“I’m trying to hold it down until my guys get back,” Wright said. “I’m out there with the young pups trying to teach them how to play linebacker, how to anticipate things before they happen.”
Fortunately, Wright has started at each of those positions as well – in the middle in his first regular-season game in 2011; and on the strong side for 11 games that season before moving to the weak side in 2012.
“Honestly, K.J. could start at all three of the linebacker spots – and he has,” Quinn said. “And I’m not sure he couldn’t be a nickel defensive end. So I couldn’t be more pleased with his start.”
While Wright could – and has – started at the other two spots, the weak side plays to his strengths. It starts with his speed and long arms, but also in play are the instincts and versatility to play the pass as well as the run.
“It’s good,” Wright said of the move to the weak side. “I’m off the ball. I’m buzzing. I’m covering tight ends and running backs. So I’m everywhere.”
And, more importantly, he is making plays everywhere.