RENTON — When the Seattle Seahawks selected K.J. Wright in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, they thought they were getting a strongside linebacker who might develop into a solid player for them at some point.
In retrospect, it turns out the Seahawks were instead drafting one of the most versatile and important players on their defense. And this week, and perhaps for a few more, that versatility will pay off in a big way for the Seahawks.
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is out for Sunday’s game and likely beyond with a turf toe injury, and while the Seahawks will certainly miss their leading tackler, they are in better shape than most teams to replace a player of Wagner’s caliber in the middle of the defense.
That’s because rather than plug an inexperienced backup in at the position that calls the plays for the defense, they can move Wright from outside linebacker to the middle and feel like they won’t miss a beat. Even better for the Seahawks, they feel like they still have three starting linebackers even when one goes out.
At full strength, Malcolm Smith — you may remember him as the MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII — doesn’t even have a starting role, though the Seahawks rotate linebackers enough that he gets a good amount of playing time. So even with Wagner out for a while, the Seahawks feel pretty darn good about a starting group of Wright in the middle, Bruce Irvin at strongside linebacker and Smith on the weakside.
“We’re so fortunate to have those guys, because Malcolm is a legitimate starter on our team, and Bruce has really come back raring to go and is playing good football,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “K.J. is one of our favorite guys because of all the versatility he has; we maintain leadership and a voice in the huddle.
“We’re very fortunate that we have this depth, and (linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr.) has done a great job to keep these guys all rotating, so that in the event you have to do something, we have a really classy guy stepping in who knows what he’s doing and all. We feel good about the guys who back up those guys too, so we’re in OK shape at this position. We hate to lose Bobby. He’s been a great player for us and a great leader and been a great factor in everything that we’ve done. He’s a tremendous football player, so you never get all that back, but we’re fortunate that we’re able to make the move that we can here.”
Wright says the position change isn’t a challenging one at this point in his career. While he came to Seattle to play strongside linebacker, he ended up opening the season as the starting middle linebacker because of an injury to then-starter David Hawthorne. And after playing primarily as a strongside linebacker in 2011 and 2012, Wright moved to the weakside spot last year with Irvin going from defensive end to strongside linebacker.
“It’s pretty much the same,” Wright said. “You see it on the field, (the weakside and middle linebackers) are about four yards away from each other, so the only thing that’s different is that I’ve got to make the calls to get guys lined up, everything else should be pretty simple.
“(Middle) linebacker is fine with me. I’ve done it before, it’s something that’s not new to me at all. I hate to see Bobby go down, but guys have to step up, and I believe we’ll handle it just fine.”
When Carroll and Norton watched Wright play as a rookie in offseason workouts, Carroll went to the linebackers coach with what he thought was a crazy idea.
“Can you imagine if he were ever our Mike linebacker? He’d be such a monster in there,” Carroll said to Norton.
It turns out, the Seahawks got a three-position monster for the bargain price of a fourth-round pick. He has played extensively at all three linebacker spots, and will again allow the Seahawks to replace an important injured player with another experienced starter.
“In college K.J. played behind the ball,” Norton said. “He was a (weakside) linebacker in college. He’s very instinctive, always around the ball, he runs really hard, and he’s extremely smart. That really sets him apart. He knows every position … For him, it’s a very natural fit. He is the middle linebacker, he knows where everybody is. That’s what the guy in the middle does, he’s the heartbeat, so this is a very natural place for him to be.”
So far, the Seahawks haven’t found a position that wasn’t a natural fit for Wright.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org