After injured 2018, thinking he was signing elsewhere, K.J. Wright has special appreciation for Seahawks offseason workouts
Since Earl Thomas, Doug Baldwin, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor aren’t around anymore, let’s call K.J. Wright what he now is.
The Seahawks’ old man. At the far-from-ancient age of 29.
“Nah,” Wright said, refusing the old-man talk.
“Let me walk off.”
The Pro Bowl veteran linebacker then turned to his left and playfully strolled a couple steps away from the microphones and cameras before returning to the interivew session following Wendesday’s fifth of 10 practices.
“It’s fun, man. It’s fun. Year nine for me,” Wright said. “Somebody told me yesterday: Longest-tenured Seahawk. Which is a blessing and an honor, just being in one program your whole career.
“It’s fun being in this position.”
Wright may be the most appreciative veteran in Seahawks organized team activities, relishing even voluntary practices in May, four months before the games get real.
“What I went through last year really put things in perspective for me,” he said. “Just approach every game, every practice, with gratitude and thankfulness. Because you just never know when something may happen and it could be your last play.
“I’m just real thankful. And I’m going to go into this season and just have fun. Just enjoy it, not sweat the small stuff.”
Wright’s contract expired after last season, in which he missed 11 of 16 regular-season games following knee surgery.
How close does Wright believe he came to not being a Seahawk this year?
“I didn’t see it happening. I thought I was going to be in a different-colored jersey,” he said.
“But, they love me here. I’m glad they love me.”
This, even meaningless practices in the spring, are whole lot more fun than he was having last August all the way into March.
Wright’s knee first began bothering him during OTAs two years ago, in the 2017 offseason. He played 13 snaps in the first exhibition game of 2017, at the Los Angeles Chargers, then sought special, blood-spinning treatment in California.
That worked, for a time. He played in 15 of 16 games that ‘17 season. Then last Aug. 24, one the eve of the final season of his Seahawks contract, he heard a pop in the knee. That was after he played 45 snaps over 2 1/2 quarters during a preseason game at Minnesota.
He had arthroscopic knee surgery late that month. Coach Pete Carroll estimated Wright’s recovery would be perhaps four weeks.
It was twice that.
He didn’t make his 2018 season debut until Oct. 28, in the win at Detroit. He played two more games, the losses to the Chargers and Rams. Then the knee kept him out of five more games. He played in just five of 16 games in the regular season.
He thought he was done in Seattle.
“Soon as I knew I had to have surgery I was like, ‘Dang! This is not very good,’” Wright said. “Contract year. Surgery. Five games. All those signs say, ‘Thank you for your services, but, you know, we’ve got to move on.’”
The Seahawks may have indeed thought they would do just that. They may have let their longest-tenured defensive player as of January leave, like they did Thomas and Sherman the last two offseasons.
In the NFC’s wild-card round Jan. 5, Wright looked like the Pro Bowl weakside linebacker he was in 2016. He was flying around sideline to sideline pressuring Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott, tackling running back Ezekiel Elliott and Cowboys wide receivers short of lines to gain in a game that was a 14-10 grudge match into the fourth quarter.
Wright had six tackles solo tackles and one assisted by the midpoint of the second quarter. Then early in the fourth quarter he saved Seattle from going down two scores. He ran down open Cowboys receiver Noah Brown at the goal line, deflected Prescott’s pass to himself and intercepted the ball in the end zone while falling down. That gem kept Seattle behind only 17-14 with 9 minutes left.
The Seahawks eventually lost 24-22 to end their season. But they gained back their beloved linebacker that night.
Two months later, after Seattle allowed him to briefly shop in the free-agent market, Wright re-signed on a two-year contract that could be worth up to $15 million. He calls it essentially a one-year, prove-it deal, because $6.25 million of the deal’s $7.25 million in guaranteed money is coming in 2019.
“I mean, it was major,” Wright said Wednesday of his performance that night in Dallas. “I know that I’m a good football player, but you have to keep doing it, because it is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type business.
“Nobody cares about what you did in the past. Nobody cares about those eight years. They care about, what can you do for us going forward?
“So it was big for me. ...They know what I bring to the table: still a helluva a linebacker, can still make plays all over the field.”
Wright believes the way he handled the final year of his contract also played a role in the Seahawks giving him a third contract at a price he wanted.
This time last year into September, Thomas angrily stayed away from the team because it wasn’t giving him a third contract at the top of the NFL market for safeties. Wright, meanwhile, attended every voluntary workout and practice from April until his surgery in August.
He did it the, um, right way, as his good friend and Seahawks All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner publicly pointed out multiple times in 2018. The Seahawks decided not to reward Thomas. They paid Wright.
Wagner is splitting the difference between Thomas’ and Wright’s approaches this month. Entering the final year of his contract, Wagner has been at all OTAs and voluntary offseason workouts in the training room. But he is refusing to practice. He doesn’t want to get hurt before he gets his new, top-of-the-market contract. All signs are that is coming to Wagner, perhaps by the start of training camp in late July.
How much does Wright believe his all-in approach with the Seahawks last year helped him get a new deal from them for this year?
“I believe that played a lot into it,” he said. “You just had a guy who stayed true to himself, was there for the team. And at the end of the day (offseason practice) doesn’t really matter, you know what it mean? But it does.”
Wright also did what Thomas did not in the final year of his contract: stayed around the Seahawks while injured and out for multiple months.
“(Showing up) doesn’t hurt you to do it. It only helps you,” he said. “At the end of the day, they didn’t have to do it. But me showing up, being hurt, was big.”
He says he is fully healthy again, but appreciates his team’s medical staff for “being smart” during offseason practices. Wright isn’t practicing during these OTAs. Wednesday, he joined new top pass rusher Ziggy Ansah (recuperating from shoulder surgery) trotting through conditioning drills on with an assistant on a back field during the start of practice.
During scrimmaging, Wright joined Wagner in coaching the many younger linebackers Seattle has this offseason. The team re-signed Wright and fellow outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks this offseason. It has Wagner and Barkevious Mingo entering the final years of their contracts. And it drafted Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven from Washington last month.
“It’s more of a mentoring role in this phase,” Wright said of his role in OTAs, the third and final stage of official offseason workouts, “and then when training camp will come I’ll be out there hustling and bustling with the guys.”
Between now and then, Wright is returning to Kenya. He is taking 20 members of his family back to the place where he vacationed last summer. For the past year, Wright has been donating money to provide clean water to towns in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya. He brought books on his first trip, and helped teach English to children there.
He’s returning to make good on his promise to install wells to provide new, fresh drinking water to the Maasai Mara. He says each well costs about $20,000 to install, to provide clean water you and I take for granted.
The NFL has pledged to donate $25,000 to his cause. Wright has raised $45,000 on his own.
That, plus helping to build homes for needy people in south Seattle, are two reasons Wright was the Seahawks’ 2018 nominee for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
“I’m going Africa next month, going back there,” Wright said. “It is very exciting to get to go back there and get those two wells built.”