One of the best linebacker tandems in the NFL might not exist if not for the way K.J. Wright answered a question after the 2011 season. Or at least that's the way Wright likes to tell the story.
After Wright finished a rookie season in which he had showed the versatility to start at both middle and strongside linebacker, Ken Norton Jr., then the Seahawks' linebackers coach, asked Wright what position he wanted to play moving forward, and his answer paved the way for the Seahawks to draft Bobby Wagner the following spring.
"Norton asked me—and this is why Bobby's here—he's like, 'K.J., you want to play Mike or Sam?' And I said Sam, and the next year we drafted Bobby, so it all worked out pretty great. I'm glad I said Sam."
Now, it's worth pointing out that position coaches have only so much sway over personnel people when it comes to draft decisions, while players have next to none, so it's entirely possible the Seahawks would have selected Wagner in the second round of the 2012 draft regardless of Wright's preference, but if Wright's answer to that question did have any impact on that decision, well then as Wright put it, the Seahawks are glad he said Sam.
The most obvious benefit of drafting Wagner is that Wagner has become one of the NFL's best middle linebackers, who is again playing at an All-Pro level in his fifth season. But what has also become more and more evident with each passing season is what that Wagner-Wright duo has meant to the Seahawks defense. While Wagner has received more of the accolades, Wright has also been a vital part of Seattle's defense despite flying somewhat under the radar on a defense loaded with star power.
"I think he has played great all year long," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I think he had an exceptional game last week. He jumped out. Between him and Bobby, depending on the opportunities, when you give them an opportunity, they're basically making their plays. Bobby has had an incredible year, but I think K.J. has as well. Last week in particular, just all of the stuff that was put in front of K.J., he jumped in and make a big play, knocked a guy down on the backfield, played reverses, knocked the ball down. All that kind of stuff. I just think he had the (opportunities), and his play has been really consistent."
While Wagner stated his preference to play strongside linebacker back in 2011—Leroy Hill was still Seattle's starting weakside linebacker at the time—he really blossomed as a playmaker after moving to weakside linebacker in 2013. Playing the weakside, or Will, linebacker spot, Wagner led the Seahawks in tackles the past two seasons, and this year ranks second to Wagner with 95 tackles.
"It just shows what I can do," Wright said of playing weakside linebacker. "The Will does everything. I remember Leroy my rookie year telling me 'Will is the best position, because that's the playmaking position.'"
For much of his career in Seattle, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has made a point this time of year to campaign for teammates he thinks are deserving of Pro Bowl honors, and this season Wright has been the subject of Sherman's efforts. As Sherman has pointed out on multiple occasions, Wright is fighting an uphill battle when it comes to postseason recognition, because off-the-ball 4-3 outside linebackers like himself are competing for honors with 3-4 outside linebackers who are primarily pass-rushers, such as Denver's Von Miller, whose sack totals tend to get more attention that big tackle numbers. The distinction between an outside linebacker in a 3-4 vs. a 4-3 is big enough that, while Wright would be considered an outside linebacker by most, Carroll talks about him as an inside linebacker because he, like Wagner, plays off the ball and not at the line of scrimmage like a strongside linebacker in Seattle's defense.
"Early on when we first had K.J., we started playing him outside and we had some conversation about it, he was really wanting to play inside," Carroll said. "It's because of his instincts, because of his familiarity. He's just grown up as an inside linebacker and he has a really great feel for reading behind the line of scrimmage and all of that. That was really obvious from the start. I just think it's his best spot. He can still play outside and he does at times anyways, but he has great versatility. I think it's basically just because he's so instinctive, so natural as a football player."
Added Wagner: "He's an extremely intelligent player. The play last week (at the end of the first half) exemplifies it. He hits the guy backwards and runs the clock out. But a lot of people sleep on his athleticism and his ability to cover tight ends and his ability to run sideline to sideline. He's 6-4, but still extremely fast. He's a really great player."
That Wagner first mentioned Wright's intelligence hardly comes as a surprise. As Wagner notes, Wright is a very good athlete, but what really sets him apart is the way he's able to know what an opposing offense is trying to do—teammates and coaches have referred to it as his "Spidey Sense"—leading to big plays like the one's he made last week, sniffing out a screen for a tackle for loss or reading a run play on third-and-short for another tackle for loss.
"It comes from the good Lord," said Wright, who is currently graded as the fourth best linebacker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, one spot behind Wagner. "I was blessed with natural instincts to see stuff before it happens. Teams run concepts that give it away."
When Wright was talking later about a play he made in last week's game, defensive end Cliff Avril jokes from a locker over that Wright should "stop patting yourself on the back." But after five standout seasons that have gone somewhat unnoticed outside of Seattle because of all the good players around him, Wright, just like Avril, is long overdue for Pro Bowl recognition. And whether or not that comes this year, Wright does at least appreciate that the people who matter most notice what he has meant to the defense.
"It feels to have teammates have my back, and I feel that appreciation even if I don't get it nation-wide," Wright said. "I know my teammates respect me and appreciate what I bring to the table."
And it's not like the work Wright has been doing this season and in his career hasn't gone entirely unnoticed outside of the Seattle area.
"I think those guys are one of the top (linebacker) tandems in the league," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said when asked about Wright and Wagner. "I think they're two of the best players at their position, at inside linebacker and outside linebacker, I love the way they play the game. They go out, play hard week in and week out. They do a good job of working together, and I think they are a lot like what me and Luke (Kuechly) try to do every week."
The Seahawks and the Panthers have faced off 12 times, including three postseason matchups. The Seahawks currently own eight wins in the series and will play the Panthers again this Sunday in Week 12 of the 2018 NFL season.