When the Seattle Seahawks fell to their division rival, the San Francisco 49ers, they lost more than the game. Starting outside linebacker K.J. Wright, who has played 86 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season, broke a bone in his foot, which will have him sidelined at least until the playoffs.
“Surgery went well,” Wright tweeted on December 12. “The doctor gave me great news! Thank you all for your prayers.”
“So ready to come back for the playoffs and end the season the wright way,” Wright wrote on a following tweet. Obviously, the spelling is no coincidence.
As the battle for the crown in the NFC West begins to heat up, the loss of Wright could not have come at a worse time. He has become a cornerstone for one of the NFL’s most feared defenses—Wright's 86 percent of the possible defensive snaps for the Seahawks this year is actually down from the 92 percent that he played last season.
Wright is currently third on the team in tackling with 80 total tackles in 2013. He has also become a more efficient player as the season has progressed.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wright has posted positive efficiency ratings in both run defense and pass defense in his previous three games before the injury.
Losing a player who defends so well against opposing passing attacks can hurt the team. Luckily, thanks to Pete Carroll and his sly ability to identify solid players in the later rounds of the draft (see Richard Sherman), Seattle has a very viable replacement for Wright. That player is Malcolm Smith, selected in the seventh round of the 2011 draft out of USC.
From a limited sample size, here is what we know about Smith: he has been solid when given the opportunity, especially in run defense. Smith has been involved in 36 tackles, one of which was a sack. He also forced a fumble this season.
Smith received meaningful playing time in three of Seattle’s games this season. He appeared on 91 percent of the possible snaps in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans, 85 percent against the Arizona Cardinals the following week, and 80 percent last week against the 49ers. Those numbers can be found on Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In each of those three games, Smith was able to post positive efficiency ratings in pass coverage, where he will need to be most effective to minimize the loss of Wright.
Although those are a lot of numbers to digest, there are two things that appear true in regards to Smith: he is very capable of filling the void left by the loss of Wright, and he also has the ability to defend against opposing passing attacks, similarly to what Wright has been able to do in the last two seasons as a starter.
Look for Smith to jump on the radar as yet another one of Carroll's late-round draft steals.