RENTON, Wash. — K.J. Wright‘s only goal for 2019 was to play in every game. He did, no small feat for a 30-year-old linebacker who missed most of 2018. And on top of making 16 regular-season starts plus two more in the playoffs, Wright set career-highs in tackles, interceptions and passes defended.
With a season like that, there wouldn’t be much question whether the Seattle Seahawks will bring back their longest-tenured player for the second and final year of his contract if not for his $10 million cap number.
Wright did everything he could to convince them it would be money well spent.
“I thought he had a terrific season,” coach Pete Carroll said. “I thought he had a terrific finish to the season. The last two months of the season were his best play of the year. We really worked hard to make sure, coming off his stuff from last year, to keep him healthy and keep him strong through the year. He got stronger as the year went on. It just became more impacting, and he made a ton of plays. Really great leadership and good toughness. It really showed up a lot. I was really fired up for him.”
The Seahawks let Wright hit free agency last offseason after he missed 11 games because of a knee injury that required surgery. He returned on a $14 million deal that included $6.5 million in first-year guarantees but none beyond that, meaning he had to prove himself in 2019 in order to be back in 2020. Wright responded with a season every bit as productive as the one he had in 2016, when he made his lone Pro Bowl.
Wright’s 132 tackles edged out his previous career best from 2016. His three interceptions matched his total from his first eight seasons combined, including playoffs. His 11 passes defended were five more than his previous best, a spike that occurred as Wright was thrown at more than any other linebacker. According to Pro Football Focus, the five touchdowns Wright allowed on his 99 targets were tied for third-most among linebackers who played at least 250 coverage snaps, while his 91.6 passer rating against was 14th best.
“K.J. was amazing this year,” said All-Pro Bobby Wagner, who combined with Wright to form one of the league’s top linebacker tandems of the past decade. “It was really, really amazing to see because … there was a lot of people writing him off last year, a lot of people thinking that he was done, thinking that he wasn’t going to come back to the form that he was after the injury, and he came back and had a career year all over the field, whether it’s interceptions, tackles, pass breakups, leadership, just being a guy that the young guys and myself can go to and lean on.
“He was an amazing person before, and just watching him battle through that, I definitely have even more respect for him. I didn’t think I could have more. So he’s an amazing person, amazing teammate, amazing friend.”
That Wright was so frequently targeted was partly a product of how often he was on the field. His 997 defensive snaps were second on the team to Wagner’s 1,054. That put Wright at well above the 80% playing time threshold he needed to achieve a $1.5 million escalator that raises his 2020 base salary from $3.5 million to $5 million.
It raises his cap number from $8.5 million to $10 million, now the fifth-highest figure on the team behind Russell Wilson ($31 million), Wagner ($14.75 million), Duane Brown ($12.5 million), Justin Britt ($11.67 million) and Tyler Lockett ($10.25 million). Wright counted $5.5 million against the 2019 cap.
The Seahawks aren’t hurting for cap room — ESPN’s Roster Management System has them at more than $60 million for 2020 — but they also have 23 unrestricted or restricted free agents.
They spent a third-round pick last year on Cody Barton, who looks like the most viable starting option among their backup linebackers. But they might need him to take over on the strong side depending on what happens with pending UFA Mychal Kendricks, who’s coming off a torn ACL and is scheduled to be sentenced March 30 in his insider trading case. Shaquem Griffin and Ben Burr-Kirven are the other two backups.
In determining whether to bring back Wright, the Seahawks will weigh all of that, plus the intangibles he brings as a 10-year veteran who’s beloved in the locker room.
Of the $7.5 million that he can earn in 2020, $1 million is in the form of a roster bonus due on the fifth day of the league year, which is March 22. If the Seahawks feel that Wright’s cap number is untenable, they have a $1 million incentive to do something about it before that date. Releasing him would save $7.5 million in cash and cap space (with $2.5 million in dead money). They could alternatively sign him to an extension that lowers his cap number.
Or they could simply let him play out his deal and hope he proves again what he proved last year, which was …
“That I’m a hell of a football player, hell of a teammate, hell of a leader and I’m someone that’s dependable,” Wright said. “So just got to take this season, appreciate it and just do it again next year.”