RENTON, WA - As he has done nearly a decade, Bobby Wagner returned to his normal spot as the anchor in the middle of the Seahawks defense this week to begin preparation for the 2021 season. But for the first time in his NFL career, the veteran All-Pro linebacker took the practice field without his partner in crime K.J. Wright.
After reporting to participate in Seattle's final four OTA practices on Monday, Wagner admitted it was uncomfortable not having his long-time friend and teammate beside him this week. Instead, he was surrounded by mostly undrafted rookies who he won't call by name, with third-year defenders Cody Barton and Ben-Burr Kirven being the most experienced linebackers in the group.
"Of course it's awkward," Wagner said of not having Wright on the team. "I'm entering Year 10, and I'm used to seeing a particular face, so it's definitely different. I'm hoping that everything still works out and we're able to get him back. I think he's a tremendous player, a tremendous person, someone that anyone would love to have on their team, so we'll see what happens."
Since his arrival as a second-round draft choice in 2012, Wagner has always had the dependable, underrated Wright alongside him, forming one of the NFL's best linebacker duos. The pair has started well over 100 games together in the middle of the Seahawks defense, helping them capture a Super Bowl title and reach the playoffs eight of the past nine seasons. Individually, they rank first and third respectively for combined career tackles in the franchise record book.
But despite putting together one of his finest seasons in 2020, including being the only defender in the entire league with double-digit tackles for loss and passes defensed, the soon-to-be 32-year old veteran remains unsigned nearly three months after the new league year opened. While a few teams were linked to him early in free agency, nothing materialized contract-wise and he has yet to find a team for next season.
Wright's age has certainly been a major factor in his ongoing search for a job. With the NFL implementing a $182.5 million salary cap as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, aging veterans have received the short end of the stick with teams being forced to cut costs building their rosters. His position also may be a significant factor, as the league seems to be trending toward more "position-less" defenses with smaller, more athletic hybrid linebackers rather than traditional off-ball players.
While Wagner understands the NFL is a business and has seen several of his former teammates come and go over the years, he remains hopeful the Seahawks and Wright will reach an agreement at some point. The two friends have kept in touch throughout the offseason and he believes Wright is simply waiting things out for the opportunity he deserves, whether in Seattle or elsewhere.
"I have conversations with him," Wagner said. "I think he's kind of waiting for the right opportunity, and I know he'll get it because he deserves it. To have a guy that's coming off probably one of his best seasons that he's had, it would be shame if he didn't end up on a team that he wanted to be on."
Currently, second-year linebacker Jordyn Brooks, who took over as the starting weakside linebacker midway through his rookie season, is expected to start next to Wagner for the Seahawks. With Wright's former starting role at the strongside position vacant, Darrell Taylor has been receiving work in OTAs as a hybrid linebacker and edge rusher in a similar role to former Seahawk star Bruce Irvin. Barton also remains a possibility after starting four games at SAM linebacker as a rookie in 2019.
Aside from those four players, Seattle has minimal experience behind them on the depth chart at linebacker. Burr-Kirven has almost exclusively played special teams in his first two seasons, while the trio of Jon Rhattigan, Nate Evans, and German rookie Aaron Donkor have played a combined zero NFL regular season snaps. Considering how green the group is overall, it's easy to see why Wagner is very much in favor of adding Wright back to the equation.
If the unit stays as constructed into the season, however, Wagner has plenty of faith in Seattle's group of linebackers and expectations won't change. But as he reiterated multiple times on Thursday, Wright coming back to the only organization he has ever known would be the ideal scenario.
"I hope that's not the case, I hope we're able to figure that out and work it out, but it would definitely be different," Wagner said. "Not having him, having a guy like that a playmaker, someone that's really, really productive - especially these last two years, he's been very, very productive - it'll be different, but this is a business, and we'll figure out what we need to do. And I'm very, very confident in our group that we have."
Recently, coach Pete Carroll as well as general manager John Schneider haven't ruled out the possibility of Wright re-signing down the road. With no other suitors emerging, if he's still unsigned by camp and willing to accept less, the Seahawks would certainly welcome him back with open arms at the right price.
As for Wagner, he too believes the door remains open for Wright to sport his No. 50 jersey once again. His rationale? As long as Batman is still hunting down ball carriers in the Pacific Northwest, there's a good chance Robin will want to throw himself back into the action and team up with his sidekick once again.
"There's definitely a door open. I mean, I feel like as long as I'm here, I would like to say the door's open."