Seattle Seahawks

Enlightened K.J. Wright, longest-tenured Seahawk, mindful of life quality after football

K.J. Wright is engaging. He’s enthusiastic. He’s entrusted with a large part of the Seahawks’ defense.

Most of all, most important to his well-being, he’s enlightened.

Wright is pacing himself through training camp. And he’s glad to be doing it.

The Pro Bowl veteran linebacker and longest-tenured Seahawk is in his ninth training camp with the team. Wright is watching backup Austin Calitro get most of his practice reps and preseason time at weakside linebacker. Wright did not play in Seattle’s first preseason game last week. Calitro is likely to play most if not all the snaps there for Wright again Sunday when the Seahawks play another exhibition game at Minnesota.

This month, Wright is enjoying the privileges of being a Super Bowl champion entrenched in a defense he knows as well as the coaches. He’s getting to rest months after signing a new, two-year contract to remain with the only pro team he’s known.

But Wright isn’t exactly coolin’ it this month.

He knows his new, $15 million contract is essentially a one-year, prove-it-now deal. He is getting a $5 million signing bonus and $1.5 million in guaranteed base pay this year. He is earning another $1.5 million in a roster bonus. That’s $8 million for 2019, with the Seahawks’ salary-cap charge at $5.5 million (the Seahawks are prorating $2.5 million of his signing bonus evenly over the two years of the deal, for cap purposes).

The remaining $7 million in his deal is for 2020, and, like most of life in the NFL, that second year isn’t guaranteed. That’s not unusual for a player entering his 30s, especially one coming off a knee surgery and setback in recovery that cost him 11 of 16 regular-season games in 2018.

Wright must earn that non-guaranteed second year in 2020 by staying healthy this season—and playing like he did in the playoff loss at Dallas in January. He was the best defensive player on the field that night in Arlington, Texas.

Last year was the first one of his career that Wright missed extended time because of an injury or surgery.

“Looking at the first year, it’s all guaranteed. Salary, signing bonus, and going from there,” Wright told Seattle’s KJR-AM radio in March after he re-signed after briefly shopping in free agency.

“It’s a one-year deal. And if the Seahawks decide to move on, then I don’t get the other seven (million).”

Until this new deal, Wright had earned $23.1 million in his NFL career. He made $7.2 million last season. It was the most money in one season of his career.

He says his goal now is to play out this two-year contract. And then, when he will turn 32 years old?

“When do you know when it’s time to stop? You just know. You just know,” Wright said Thursday following the 15th practice of Seattle’s preseason.

“For me, personally, my ultimate goal is to get to 10 (years in the league). Get to 10, and then just got to evaluate life.

“It depends how happy you are. Depends on how much you love it. I think guys will know when it’s time to walk away.”

Wright is part of the growing group of veteran players who are already mindful, while still playing, of preserving a quality of life they can enjoy long after they are done.

This generation of NFL stars increasingly can afford to quit on their own terms. Thanks to soaring league revenues and a corresponding, consistent rise in player salaries, they have earned tens of millions more than the top players of a couple decades ago, men who played on through pain well into their 30s.

Plus, today’s star players are in a sport and world that are far more aware of brain trauma and the detrimental effects from pain-killing drugs. Those two major concerns have become scientifically proven parts of playing NFL football.

One of the highest-profile examples of this generation is former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland. He retired in 2015, citing concerns about his health and safety. He was 24 years old and had just finished a standout rookie season in the middle of the Niners defense when he quit.

Borland did so days after fellow 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, retired abruptly to avoid risking further injury. Willis was 30 when he quit playing.

That’s the age Wright turned last month.

“What I don’t want guys to do is walk away when they are, like, broke down, just beat up,” Wright said. “I ask guys all the time: ‘Hey, how long you want to play?’ Some guys be like, ‘I want to play until the wheels fall off.’

“I be like...”

Wright made a halting, dismissive buzzer sound with his voice.

“No,” he said, “because once those wheels fall off, they don’t come back on.

“So, I get this is a very important game and we all love it, but you’ve got to walk away as healthy as possible.”

Wright acknowledged veteran players are thinking more about this and ending their playing days while they can still actually, literally walk away from the game.

“Hallelujah,” Wright said. “Thankfully, guys are not playing around with these concussions. They are not playing around with that. They are walking away. And that’s fine.

“You’ve got 50-plus more years to live, so it’s important to do that.”

Wright said he’s not just worried about his head being clear for a long life as a husband to Natalie and father to 3-year-old son Kameron Joseph Wright.

“It’s about them all. It’s about your knees, your shoulder, your head, it’s the whole combination,” Wright said.

“I believe you’ve seen the guys that played before us how much damage, how much toll they took. You’ve just got to be smart going forward.”

K.J. Wright holds his then-3-month-old son after a Seahawks preseason practice in August 2016. Kameron Joseph Wright is 3 now. His dad is mindful of when it will be time to retire from football and live a quality post-NFL life with his family. Genna Martin via The Associated Press

Wright thought he wouldn’t play another game for Seattle after his injury-filed 2018. His contract ended in January. He and his agent began shopping for free-agent offers from teams at the league’s scouting combine in Indianapolis this past winter.

Then, when the market officially opened in March, Wright thought he was gone again. The Seahawks re-signed Mychal Kendricks for 2019 for $4 million, potentially up to $5.3 million, contingent on a hearing the former Super Bowl starting linebacker for Philadelphia has Sept. 23 in Pennsylvania for pleading guilty to insider trading. Kendricks played for Wright at weakside linebacker in Seattle’s 4-3 defense last season, when Wright remained out following his knee surgery.

“I thought ‘(I’m) toast,’” Wright told KJR about Kendricks re-signing.

“I honestly thought I was leaving. I thought I was gone. I was prepping my family,” Wright said. ”But they found something to make me happy, and I was like, ‘This is a perfect fit for me. Let’s get rollin’!’

“To be with one team (for nine years) is special. ...It’s just a blessing, to be a multimillionaire and set up your family, for life.”

With the Seahawks committing potentially $13 million to Wright and Kendricks this year, coaches are preparing to play those two and All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner together in 2019. Kendricks has been playing strongside linebacker in camp.

Expect the Seahawks to use more base defense with their three Super Bowl veteran linebackers. It’s coach Pete Carroll’s best linebacker unit in Seattle.

The Seahawks have spent 70 percent of defensive snaps in nickel (five defensive backs and two linebackers) the last few seasons. But that was with productive Justin Coleman as the nickel back.

Coleman is gone now, to Detroit in free agency this spring with the richest deal a nickel defensive back has ever received ($9 million per year). Finding a new nickel back is one of Seattle’s tasks this preseason.

The strongside (“SAM”) linebacker usually plays closer to the line of scrimmage and blitzes more in Carroll’s base defensive scheme than the weakside (“WILL”) backer. But Wright said he and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., Wright’s position coach from Seattle’s Super Bowl teams in the 2013 and ‘14 seasons, have talked about Wright blitzing more this season.

“I should. I need that,” Wright said, laughing and reminding himself he has to earn that second season of his contract.

“Me and Norton are on the same page. We’ve got a good game plan for it. We’ve just got to make it happen.”

Norton showed more blitzing in last week’s first preseason game against Denver than Seattle usually shows, certainly more than teams usually reveal in the vanilla schemes of exhibitions. The Seahawks were flying into the backfield from linebacker, cornerback, safety, nickel—everywhere.

It suggested the coaches know the weakest, most unproven part of the team right now is the defensive front four linemen, that the Seahawks need to be creative in producing pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.

How did Norton think all the blitzing worked in the first preseason game?

“Well. It worked well,” Norton said. “I think (we are) trying to find out the personality of the team, trying to really figure out what we do best. It’s only one game in so there’s still a few games left in the preseason. There is a lot of evaluation left to go.”

Wright said what he really wants to see, and thinks the Seahawks will do more of this season, is blitzing on first and second downs.

“Not just the third downs,” Wright said. “We know guys are going to pass on second and 9. Let’s come after them. Let’s mix it up a little bit.

“And I believe you will see some good stuff from us this year.”

Wright says Seattle has been a perfect fit for him since he arrived as the team’s fourth-round draft choice in 2011. The Mississippi native, his wife and their young family have fallen in love with the Puget Sound region. Wright reiterated he wants to end his career as a Seahawk and retire here.

The feeling around the Pacific Northwest is mutual. Wright is one of this region’s most beloved athletes. He was the Seahawks’ nominee for the 2018 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award. He built homes for the less-fortunate in South Seattle and pledged thousands of dollars to build wells for clean water in the villages of Kenya he visited in 2018 and again this past offseason. The wells are in the ground and operating; Wright got to see the life-changing product of his money in operation back in Kenya just before this training camp began last month.

He said he admires teammate Russell Wilson and his wife, Ciara, for investing in an ownership share of the Seattle Sounders Major League Soccer team this week.

“Oh, man, if I can get in (on that), I’m going to get in,” Wright said, laughing.

“But when I saw that from Russ, that was really cool, to see a player just own a team, be an owner of a team. Those are just goals.

“You are seeing more and more guys doing great things outside of just football. You see Bobby negotiating his own ($54 million, top-of-the-NFL-market) contract. You see Russ.

“It’s limitless, the things that we can do.”

Gregg Bell is the Seahawks and NFL writer for The News Tribune. In January 2019 he was named the Washington state sportswriter of the year by the National Sports Media Association. He started covering the NFL in 2002 as the Oakland Raiders beat writer for The Sacramento Bee. The Ohio native began covering the Seahawks in their first Super Bowl season of 2005. In a prior life he graduated from West Point and served as a tactical intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, so he may ask you to drop and give him 10.
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