It's been a week since the Seahawks began their 2021 NFL Draft journey and their opening at strongside linebacker remains unfilled. Head coach Pete Carroll has been adamant about his excitement to see how third-year man Cody Barton plays into the equation, but he also hasn't shut the door on a few other options.
This includes moving Darrell Taylor to the spot, with the 2020 second-round pick seemingly pushed down the depth charts at the LEO position following Seattle's barrage of moves to shore up its pass rushing unit. A reunion with K.J. Wright, who magnificently filled in at SAM linebacker after Bruce Irvin tore his ACL in a Week 2 matchup versus the Patriots last year, is still very much on the table as well.
In fact, Wright's return may be all but a foregone conclusion at this point. The draft certainly helped the Seahawks' chances of retaining the franchise legend, whether it be their decision to forego players like Baron Browning and Chazz Surratt early on, or Wright's likeliest outside suitor, the Cowboys, taking two of the event's highest-ranked linebackers.
It was no secret Wright had his sights set on Dallas, with his former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn now helming the Cowboys' defense. Seahawks general manager John Schneider even alluded to this in a pre-draft press conference last week.
"There's so many coaches on our staff - that were on our staff - that are at different places, we thought he would be signed by now," Schneider told reporters before the draft.
Schneider's insights weren't breaking news, however. Wright had already confirmed the reasons for his interest in Dallas earlier in the offseason when speaking to Mike Fisher of CowboysSI.com.
"With Dan Quinn there, and with other aspects of that team and that defense, I do think it's one of the teams I fit in with," said Wright in March.
Despite his openness, nothing came to fruition between him and the Cowboys. Now, with the team adding Penn State's Micah Parsons and LSU's Jabril Cox to a group that already boasted Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander-Esch, the door appears all but closed on a Wright-to-Dallas scenario.
The 2020 Steve Largent Award recipient remaining unsigned is a bit of a head-scratcher to say the least. At the age of 31, after switching from WILL linebacker to SAM, Wright was the only defender in the NFL with double-digit marks in both passes defensed (10) and tackles-for-loss (11). All that in followup to a stellar 2019 campaign in which he registered a career-high in tackles with 132.
Wright has shown very little signs of slowing down, yet the league continues to vastly undervalue his services. At least, that's what it looks like on the surface—that this has ultimately come down to a monetary tug-of-war.
Teams likely view Wright purely as a base defender at this stage of his career, which is naturally going to drive his price down. Had a team valued him as a true three-down player, which he most likely does, it's hard not to think he'd be signed by now.
This is especially true in the case of the Seahawks, who appear fully committed to 2020 first-round selection Jordyn Brooks as their weakside linebacker. Whether Wright returns or not, Brooks and future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner are going to be Seattle's one-two punch in its linebacking corps this fall. And the versatile Brooks would certainly be favored over Wright in nickel and dime packages, especially for his excellent skills in pass coverage.
Therefore, while Wright deserves to be paid what he's worth, the Seahawks are not going to give him exactly what he wants. If they were, it probably would have happened by now. And at this point in the offseason, no other team appears set to do so either.
Something to keep in mind here: as of May 2, free agent signings no longer count against the compensatory pick formula for 2022. That could mean a busier market for Wright, and it's possible a team like the Raiders, Jaguars, or Saints come calling. But none are an absolute home run of a fit for him, and they almost certainly don't offer the 10-year veteran an opportunity to win another championship in 2021.
For that reason, as well as the level of familiarity Wright has with the Seahawks, a return to the Pacific Northwest seems to be his best option.
While they're expected to have somewhere around $2 million in cap space after signing their draft class, the Seahawks still have a few levers they can pull to free up more salary cap space and give the Mississippi State alum a solid payday in the end. That could be through a Jamal Adams extension or a restructure of Russell Wilson's contract, for example. They could also enact the usage of voidable years, much like they've done with many of their contracts this offseason, to help push some of Wright's money to 2022 and beyond.
Carroll has said he's been in close contact with Wright throughout this whole process, likely giving the Seahawks a better 'lay of the land' when it comes to his free agency than most. They'll be right there with him up to the finish line, and for all the reasons listed, this likely ends with Wright continuing his legacy in Seattle.
With the uncertainty of how Barton or Taylor would take to the role, and the lack of strong outside interest in Wright's market, this is what's best for both sides.