It could easily be inferred that the Seattle Seahawks were priming to move on from franchise stalwart KJ Wright at the end of the 2020 season. His current contract only had guarantees for the first year, meaning the Seahawks can cut Wright with no adverse effect on their salary cap. Pair that with Seattle drafting linebackers Cody Barton and Jordyn Brooks in the early rounds of the last couple drafts, it looked like the 31-year-old Wright would soon be expunged to pave the way for the future. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Instead of an older KJ bleeding snaps to the youngsters on roster, he made himself irreplaceable on the field. Seattle played him on 86% of defensive snaps, using his extensive experience to regularly plug holes in Seattle’s secondary. The decision to release, keep him on his current contract or even extend him will be an interesting question for the Seattle front office.
Replacing Wright with one of Brooks or Barton would be a tough adjustment for the defensive unit as a whole, as Wright is still one of the premier coverage linebackers in the league. Covering tight ends, running backs and wide receivers has become the most difficult task for any modern linebacker, let alone in Seattle’s new blitz-heavy defense. The nature of such a scheme not only opens up holes in the secondary that shouldn’t be there but puts an impetus on the opposing QB to get the ball out quickly, usually closer to the line of scrimmage. It’s why even though Wright gave up a 77.3% completion rate, Pro Football Focus still has him as their 7th best coverage linebacker. His ability to clean up short completions and stop screens dead in their tracks is one of his defining traits. Seeing Wright burst forward and take down a running back behind the line of scrimmage was a regular occurrence. Jordyn Brooks, on the other hand, was downright terrible against the pass, as PFF has him down as one of the worst at it in the entire league. That would be a steep curve for the second-year rookie to overcome.
Run defense would be the one thing that shouldn’t be much of an issue as that is Brooks specialty. Unfortunately, the modern NFL has deemphasized the running game to a degree that it has made premier run defenders somewhat null and void at the position. Both Wright and Brooks were handed similar grades in run defense, but Wright got a vast majority of the snaps because he didn’t let huge gaps in coverage develop behind him. Even though he is younger, fast and stronger, Brooks is still at a huge disadvantage to getting on the field. He is really, really good at stopping running backs, just go back and look at the goal line stands he made in Seattle’s penultimate game against the Rams. On two separate plays near the endzone, with a shaky 20-9 lead, Brooks brought down Malcom Brown twice with the second resulting in a turnover on downs. While Wright doesn’t quite bring that physical edge in the scrum anymore, it doesn’t quite matter much in the grand scheme of things.
In the end, it would be quite foolish to let KJ go even if it would provide Seattle a little more breathing room in free agency. Seattle already has $126,278,460.00 tied up in base salaries according to Spotrac, with a big extension for Jamal Adams somewhere on the horizon. Releasing Wright would free up $7.5 million in space to try and tackle some of the issues that have been pointed out by Russell Wilson recently, but doing that would mean the Seahawks have a belief that first-round pick Jordyn Brooks is ready to fill Wright’s shoes. Even though he had a couple splash plays during his rookie year, Brooks would be hard pressed to provide the same type of consistent production that KJ Wright has over his years as a Seahawk. Because of this, I can’t imagine Pete Carroll and Co. would be comfortable cutting him while they are still a contending team. If they really need space, a restructuring of his contract may be the better route to give him more guaranteed money into future years and reduce his salary hit. At this point I can’t see Seattle parting ways with their longest tenured player quite yet.