For the first time in his seven-year career, Bobby Wagner may have a new partner at the second level in 2019. K.J. Wright, the longest tenured Seahawk, is set to hit free agency in March. Wagner has repeatedly expressed his desire to see Wright return, as has Wright himself.
However, Seattle cannot make the decision to keep Wright or let him walk based on emotion. The veteran linebacker is heading into his age-30 season, and just finished a season which saw him play less than 13 games for the first time—appearing in just five. Even more damning, the injury that hobbled Wright until Week 16 first popped up in August. There was a brief, three week return in late October and early November where Wright truly did not look healthy, and then he was gone again until late December.
To Wright’s credit, when he returned in Week 16, he absolutely did look like the ever-present linebacker he has been for the better part of eight seasons. And that’s what will make the Seahawks’ decision so difficult—are they going to let a known quantity walk, or risk giving a substantial amount of money to a player whose best seasons are behind him?
If Seattle errs on the side of caution and move on from Wright, the free agent market has a handful of appealing, low-cost replacements.
Over the last four seasons, Wilson has sporadically started for the Cowboys as Sean Lee battled injuries. Now, the 25-year-old will surely hit unrestricted free agency, as Dallas seemingly has the next great linebacker duo in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
In a shallow pool of linebackers in free agents, Wilson is an intriguing if not flawed option. A move to the Seahawks would require a position switch, as Wilson’s been predominately deployed as the SAM linebacker with the Cowboys. However, he possesses the athletic profile Seattle seeks in their linebackers, and was one of Dallas’s more important special teamers in recent seasons.
It’s unlikely Wilson would be a long-term solution at WILL linebacker, however, as he’s proved in Dallas, he can be a stop-gap solution. At a low cost, Wilson could give the Seahawks fine play and, more importantly, buy them time to find the long-term solution next to Wagner.
Approximate deal: In 2018, Jon Bostic, who was a part-time starter during his first four seasons in the league, signed a two-year, $4M deal with $1.4M guaranteed with the Steelers. A deal for Wilson would be in the same range, and the low guaranteed money would allow Seattle to keep their flexibility next offseason.
The New Orleans Saints’ first-round selection in 2015—taken with the Seahawks’ selection dealt for Jimmy Graham—is hitting free agency after four disappointing seasons, two with the Saints and two with the Dolphins. After starting all 16 games as a rookie, Anthony has started just three games since—all as a sophomore. In 2018, Anthony appeared in all 16 games but played just 27 snaps on defense.
We’ve often seen Seattle take fliers on high draft picks who have flamed out elsewhere, whether it was Dion Jordan, Luke Joeckel or Barkevious Mingo. Anthony could be the next in that line, and has previously put together a strong season. As a rookie, Anthony posted 112 tackles, a sack, an interception and two forced fumbles. New Orleans did him no favors following his rookie season, moving him to the outside where his lack of ability in space could be exploited more regularly.
Signing Anthony would likely lead to a similar situation to what the Seahawks found themselves in last year during Wright and Mychal Kendricks’ absence, with Barkevious Mingo shifting to the weakside and playing in space, while Austin Calitro was deployed around the line of scrimmage.
Approximate deal: Last offseason, Mingo hit free agency fresh off his best season as a pro. Anthony, meanwhile, is several seasons removed from his, and his stock is as low as it could be. Anthony shouldn’t come close to the deal Mingo received; instead, a one-year deal worth $1M-$1.5M without guarantees could work.
After spending the first three seasons of his career playing mostly on special teams with the Dolphins, Hewitt signed with the Jets as a free agent last spring. Following Darren Lee’s suspension, Hewitt stepped into the starting lineup and impressed, filling gaps aggressively and affecting the opposing quarterbacks as a rusher.
As an undersized, modern linebacker, Hewitt would be the best fit at WILL linebacker in Seattle among the ‘backers listed here. He has the ability to drop into hook/curl zones and the flats, allowing Mingo to remain exclusively on the strongside and the line of scrimmage (assuming he remains on the roster). Hewitt has the size and athleticism the Seahawks seek at linebacker, and flashed legitimate upside over the final month of the 2018 season. Though he wouldn’t be a surefire bet, there’s reason to believe Hewitt could be more than a stop-gap solution in Seattle.
Approximate deal: Hewitt played on a one-year, $705,000 contract in 2018, and a reasonable bump should be expected for his new deal. A two-year deal in the $3M range would be a worthwhile gamble for the Seahawks—at the very least, they would be adding depth and a special teams contributor.
There’s a linebacker set to hit free agency who has plenty of experience playing alongside an All-Pro from the 2012 NFL Draft, who is missing from this list. Thomas Davis announced in January that the Panthers wouldn’t be bringing him back for a 14th season, despite another above average season in 2018. Though Davis’ skill set would actually fit quite well alongside Wagner, he shouldn’t be considered an option. Davis will command a contract close to what Wright would receive in terms of per year average; it would make far more sense to bring Wright back rather than sign Davis in that scenario.
Ultimately, that’s what Seattle should attempt to do: Bring Wright back on a short, one- or two-year deal which would allow them to get out after the 2019 season (if it’s multiple years). To tie the position to Shaquem Griffin would be a large risk; an element of risk is attached to all the linebackers above, as well.
Running back what has been a terrific partnership between the Seahawks and Wright in 2019 would be beneficial to both parties: Seattle would be afforded more time to find a long-term solution next to Wagner, while Wright gets a chance to put together a full season before hitting free agency.