This time last year, the Seattle Seahawks' defense was in the early stages of a major transition.
Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright were two of the last remaining cornerstones, and with their former position coach, Ken Norton Jr., returning to coordinate Pete Carroll's defense, the focal point of that side of the ball was shifting from the secondary to the linebacker corps.
That was the thought, anyway.
Wright's knee injury sidelined him for 11 games of his contract year, putting his future with the team in question all the way up until the moment he agreed to remain in Seattle last week on a two-year deal that can be worth up to $15 million.
Wright told Sports Radio 950 KJR that the contract contains no guaranteed money beyond 2019. But at the very least, the Seahawks will have perhaps the NFL's best linebacker tandem together for one more year.
"I get to play right beside him again," Wright told KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. "We're going to keep dominating like we've been doing in the past."
Wagner is coming off his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and his fourth first-team All-Pro selection in five years. He and Wright are second and seventh, respectively, on the franchise's all-time tackles list. Wright had topped 100 tackles for four straight seasons before last season, and he would have more than one Pro Bowl nod on his résumé if the voting weren't so skewed to favor linebackers who rush the passer.
As good as they've been together on the field, they're as close off of it as any two Seahawks other than the Griffin twins. Wright said that he and Wagner hung out at the team's headquarters for a couple of hours Thursday when he showed up to sign his contract. When someone at the facility asked them which of the two was happier that Wright was sticking around, Wright replied, "Probably this dude," referring to Wagner.
"Our personalities just match up," Wright said. "We're two guys that take our jobs very serious. We're two guys that are leaders on the team and leaders in the communities, and we just want to be great at what we do. Not everyone is like that. I've had a lot of people come through, and not everyone has that mentality that both of us have. It's something that's always jelled. It just matches up perfectly."
Wright said he and Wagner were in communication throughout his free-agency experience. It figures that Wagner would pay close attention to how the Seahawks handled Wright's situation, not only because of their friendship but because of the uncertainty regarding the organization's willingness to commit big money to players nearing or over 30.
That's been in question since Seattle gave third contracts to Chancellor and Michael Bennett. The way those deals came back to bite the Seahawks was considered a primary reason why they weren't interested in giving Thomas the type of top-of-the-market contract he just got from the Baltimore Ravens.
That uncertainty was on Wagner's mind last summer when he commented publicly on Wright's contract situation and made it clear that he'd be disappointed if the Seahawks didn't keep him around. After all, Wagner was entering the second-to-last year of his own deal, which makes him eligible for an extension from Seattle now that he has one season left.
"You definitely have to appreciate guys like K.J. because he's been here, he hasn't missed a practice, he's been available and he's letting that play out," Wagner said in August, while Wright was in training camp and Thomas was not. "But there's also a side to that. If you don't get the deal done, you give a guy like that an opportunity to walk away. So it's like, as a team, you have to figure out what you want to do and who do you want to pay?
"That comes from the guys upstairs, but when you have certain situations where you've got guys that hold out but then you've got guys that stay and do all the right things and is a leader in the room, is a guy that everybody looks up to, you can't let a guy like that walk away. For me, if you let a guy like that walk away, it would be telling."
Extending Wagner won't be easy now that C.J. Mosley, a comparatively less accomplished player, has raised the top of the market for inside linebacker to $17 million per season. That's more than $6 million per year above what Wagner is making on his current deal. The New York Jets can afford to pay Mosley that type of money while they have quarterback Sam Darnold on his rookie contract, a luxury the Seahawks don't have with Russell Wilson, who, by the way, is in line for a massive extension of his own.
That Wagner is now representing himself without an agent might only complicate negotiations, whenever those begin.
But the Wright signing only makes it easier to envision the Seahawks getting a deal done with Wagner.
Either way, they'll have that tandem together for at least one more year. Now that Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly have split up in Carolina, Seattle should have the league's best linebacking duo as long as Wright's knee holds up. He told 710 ESPN Seattle that it should be OK with proper maintenance. If the Seahawks are indeed guaranteeing him $8 million for 2019, as Wright said they are, that suggests a certain level of confidence that it will. The way he played when he returned late last season is an encouraging sign as well.
"I believe when you look back 10, 20 years from now, you're going to see that Bobby and K.J. was the best to ever do it," Wright said. "And we're going to go down as the greatest that ever put on this uniform. It's just real special."