RENTON, WA - For weeks, Bobby Wagner has known there would be a strong chance he would be taking the field for training camp without his partner in crime K.J. Wright. The acclimation period already started last month when the Seahawks held their annual mandatory minicamp without the veteran linebacker.
But with two practices now in the books, Wagner remains baffled why Wright still hasn't found a team for the 2021 season. And although he understands the NFL is a business first and foremost, he's still getting used to the reality the two close friends aren't playing together for a 10th season in Seattle.
"It's definitely an adjustment, something you've got to get used to. I've been around him for my whole career, so it's definitely something you're conscious of. Something that you have to understand how the business works and hope for the best and kind of figure things out," Wagner said following Thursday's training camp practice.
"I just think it’s very interesting that somebody can come off one of his best seasons and find himself not on a team. I definitely feel like he’s deserving of it. He’s a leader, someone that anybody would love to have on his team. Unfortunately, there’s a business side to this. I’m still hoping for the best.”
One of the most iconic linebackers in franchise history, Wright turned in a fantastic 2020 season for the Seahawks. Willingly moving to the strongside linebacker position after Bruce Irvin suffered a torn ACL in Week 2, he produced 86 tackles, 2.0 sacks, an interception, and concluded the season as the only player in the league with double-digit passes defensed and tackles for loss.
Shortly before the start of the league year, Wright made it clear he would not be willing to take a "hometown discount" to return to the Seahawks for an 11th season. But despite playing some of his best football a year ago, several factors have worked against him in his pursuit of a contract at perceived market value since he became a free agent in March.
For one, NFL teams were strapped for cap space due to lack of attendance last season resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. With limited money to spend, even considering the 32-year old Wright's consistency and reliability for a decade, they weren't interested in paying market price for an aging defender. Secondly, teams seem to be shifting towards more "position-less" defenses with smaller, hybrid defenders rather than traditional off-ball linebackers.
Consequently, without any desired offers coming to the table, Wright has been left to continue playing the waiting game into the start of training camps across the league without a job.
“I think he’s doing alright," Wagner said. "I think he’s waiting for the right opportunity. We still talk trash to each other so, you know.”
For the past nine years, Wagner and Wright have been cornerstones in the middle of Seattle's defense, starring for some of the best units in NFL history. Between the two players, they've amassed more than 2,000 tackles, 110 tackles for loss, 30.0 sacks, and 16 interceptions during that span.
Entering his 10th season, Wagner told reporters during June's minicamp that he remained hopeful the Seahawks would find a way to bring Wright back and the two play together once again. But as he took the field on Wednesday, No. 50 was nowhere to be found, reaffirming the changing times in the Pacific Northwest.
Instead, Seattle plans to move forward with a youth movement alongside Wagner. After earning several starts in the second half of his rookie season, former first-round pick Jordyn Brooks will step in as the full-time weakside linebacker. Fellow 2020 draft choice Darrell Taylor, who missed all of last season recovering from a leg surgery, has been taking first-team reps at strongside linebacker.
Notorious for refusing to call rookies by name, Wagner's tradition has carried over into the new season. Undrafted signee Jon Rhattigan and German linebacker Aaron Donkor have already been tagged with the "rookie" moniker several times on the field this week. And the practice has even carried over into year No. 2 for Brooks.
“Who said I didn’t?" Wagner joked when asked why he won't call Brooks by name yet. "You going to believe a rookie? Come on man. You can’t believe anything a rookie says.”
As Wagner noted, this isn't close to the first time he's had to adjust to high-profile defensive teammates leaving Seattle, comparing the current situation without Wright to when "Legion of Boom" members Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor departed. In a span of just two seasons, all three of those stars had moved on due to injuries and/or contract disputes.
Much like he did when those three players exited stage left, with Wright no longer on the team, Wagner realizes he will have to be more vocal in an effort to develop chemistry with players such as Brooks and Taylor who he hasn't played much with to this point.
"When you’re around somebody for a long period of time, they know you and you know them. So, there’s a lot of nonverbal communication that happens," Wagner commented. "I think on my part it’s more re-learning that people around me are not knowing what I’m thinking. You have to communicate more and help more. Nothing I can’t handle."
To his credit, as expected from a player of his caliber and reputation, Wagner has handled the situation in stride. On the field, he's been taking charge during drill work, offering advice on technique to players such as Cody Barton or Ben Burr-Kirven and helping newcomers such as Donkor or Rhattigan learn a new defense for the first time.
While it's early in camp, Wagner has been pleased with what he's seen from Taylor, who may be the biggest wild card on the Seahawks defense heading towards the season. Built with an athletic 255-pound frame, his skill set is well-suited for a hybrid linebacker role such as the one Irvin played in Seattle's defense for four-plus seasons and he offers immense upside if he catches on at the position quickly.
“He’s very explosive. Very explosive. Equally as smart. He’s very smart," Wagner assessed. "When you watch him on the field, you can definitely tell when he’s out there, whether it’s pass rush, sometimes when he’s dropping. It’s noticeable when he’s out there.”
As long as Wright remains a free agent, the door will always be open for a potential return. The veteran recently indicated on an interview with Sirius XM radio that a reunion isn't out of the question. But for now, Wagner will roll with the punches as he's done on numerous occasions in his career, doing the best he can to get his younger teammates up to speed and build a rapport with his young teammates.
Just don't expect him to call them by name.