K.J. Wright noticed the change on the very first day of offseason workouts. Back in April when the team got together for the first time since the end of the 2017 season, new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. leaned on the veteran linebacker to get a few points across in a defensive meeting.
"The difference showed today," Wright said on the first day of the Seahawks' offseason workout program. "Coach Norton called on me twice in the meeting room, had me explain some things, had me read some things off the board."
It wasn't that Wright, a seven-year veteran and a Pro-Bowl linebacker, wasn't up to the task of being put on the spot by Norton Jr., it's that in years past, he wasn't a player as often called upon in meetings. Even as an established veteran in recent years, Wright wasn't necessarily called upon to lead on a defense full of big talent and equally big personalities.
Now, in an offseason that saw the Seahawks make some significant changes, both to the coaching staff and the roster, it is only fitting that Norton Jr., who from 2010 to 2014 served as the team's linebackers coach, is back to lead Seattle's defense at a time when Seattle's top two linebackers are ready to take on bigger on-field leadership roles.
As the Seahawks rose to prominence under Pete Carroll and John Schneider earlier this decade, it was a young secondary, a group that would come to be known as the Legion of Boom, that became the face of the defense. That group continued over the years to be one of the best position groups not just on the team, but in football, and a defensive line led by ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril provided much of the veteran leadership. And ever since Bobby Wagner joined K.J. Wright as one of Seattle's two every-down linebackers, the Seahawks have been as strong at linebacker as they have just about anywhere on the field. But while those two have long been two of Seattle's top players, they weren't always the most visible, not on a defense featuring the likes of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bennett and Avril.
Wagner in particular is familiar and comfortable with a leadership role—the middle linebacker makes the calls on the field and is often referred to as the quarterback of the defense, and he was a team captain last year, so to say he is stepping into a leadership role this year would be misleading. But with Sherman, Bennett and Avril gone, and with Chancellor's future still uncertain because of a neck injury, Wagner, as well as Wright, will be called upon to take on more of the leadership going forward. And Carroll is confident that those two are ready to help lead his defense.
"Bobby and K.J. Wright, those guys have been great leaders for us," Carroll said in March at the annual league meetings. "Bobby really has been the voice of our defense for years, so this just accentuates his opportunity and his role. So I think we are in good shape. I don't see any big transition other than those are big personalities (that left), and when they are not there, there is a difference. But I don't think it is going to change us.
"Bobby Wagner is as good of a leader as you could ever hope for. He has done everything in terms of consistency and production and toughness and mentality, everything about him. He and Russell (Wilson) are great leaders, K.J. Wright is a fantastic leader, Doug Baldwin is an incredible leader. We have not lacked for those kinds of players who step to the front and are willing to send the message and stand for what we're all about. I have no problem with the leadership aspect of our team at all. We're in terrific shape."
Wagner, a four-time Pro-Bowler and three-time All-Pro, doesn't see much changing for him this year other than perhaps the attention that will be on him with some other big-name players moving on.
"I don't have to change much," he told the media Monday. "I just think that you guys will pay a little bit more attention to what I've already been doing."
Yet even if Wagner doesn't plan on changing much, he did acknowledge that leadership, in addition to pass coverage on running backs, is one of the areas of his game he is focused on improving in the offseason.
"Obviously I think leading is going to be one, too, stepping up in that aspect," Wagner said when asked about his offseason goals.
Wright also plans to focus on leading in his own way, not on trying to change who he is just because some of his former teammates are playing elsewhere.
"It'll come naturally," Wright said. "I've been doing things my own way, and I can take it to the next level but still do it in my own way. I don't have to replace Michael Bennett, I can do my leadership in my own way."
And years after Wagner and Wright were two of Seattle's young, up-and-coming players, their former position coach who helped them develop into Pro-Bowl players is back and ready to join them in leading Seattle's defense.
"He just brings a certain energy, a certain passion to the game," Wagner said of Norton Jr., who spent the past three seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. "He's an amazing leader, he brings a lot out of you. I feel like he gets the best out of everybody because he takes time with that connection and gets to know everybody."
During Norton's first stint with the Seahawks, he started a book club to help his young linebackers see that there was more to the world than football.
"Everybody was like 21, 22, so he was trying to make sure we weren't just focused on girls, football, all that stuff," Wagner said.
Years later, Wagner doesn't need Norton to encourage him to pick up a book to expand his horizons—he has grown up quite a bit from the player who arrived in Seattle in 2012. But despite being more mature, despite being ready to lead a defense, Wagner, as well as Wright, is thrilled to have Norton back.
"As soon as I got the news, I just started thinking about all the things we could do together," Wagner said. "I was really excited about having him back."
The Seahawks' third week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) continued on Monday, June 4, with the team holding the seventh of nine voluntary offseason workout practices at Renton's Virginia Mason Athletic Center.