Raiders LB K.J. Wright Inspires Shades of William Thomas

Source: Rick Scuteri/AP Photo

Signing a big-name free agent like K.J. Wright is commonplace for the Las Vegas Raiders. No organization has extracted more talent out of aging former stars than the Silver and Black. When it became clear the Seattle Seahawks were not interested in retaining the former Pro Bowl linebacker, head coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley took notice.

Humans are creatures of habit. We often times don’t like veering out of our comfort zones. Occasionally we tell ourselves we need to “switch it up,” or “this time, I’m going to _____.” It all sounds great, but most never really follow through on these empty promises to ourselves. We are all guilty of this, and so is Gruden.

Jon Gruden has an affinity for veteran players. During his first stint in the NFL, he practically went out of his way to make a rookie’s life a living hell. He would chastise them, ride them harder than the rest in practice, quiz them in meetings to see if they were paying attention. Limiting their playing time would be commonplace. Often times, he simply wouldn’t activate them on gamedays.

Shortly after being named the head coach of the Raiders in 1998, he brought in a number of wily veteran players. He needed these vets to help implement the changes he wanted to impose on the team. Gruden knew he had to churn over the roster to his liking. The quickest way he could turn the team around was with seasoned veterans – players who were coachable yet had a bit of an edge to their game.

Among the moves Gruden made was trading for Pro Bowl CB Eric Allen. He signed the eccentric Andre Rison to team up with Tim Brown. He added punishing running backs Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett to partner with speedster Napoleon Kaufman. Gruden also, of course, signed a 34-year-old career backup QB named Rich Gannon and turned him into an eventual league MVP.

One of his best defensive additions that hardly gets mentioned was linebacker William Thomas. Gruden knew Thomas well from his time as offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. Gruden saw first hand just how dynamic of a player Thomas was.

In the three years Gruden spent with Thomas (1995-1997) he witnessed Thomas receive two Pro Bowl selections in 1995 and 1996. Thomas notched 12 interceptions, 12.5 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries, and 50 tackles for loss.

In 2000, the free agent linebacker headed to Oakland where he reunited with Gruden. Eager to prove himself, he didn’t take long to make his presence felt. In his two years with the Silver and Black, Thomas never missed a game. He totaled 9 interceptions, 4 sacks, and 14 TFLs. There was a lot more to his impact than stats alone.

He brought instant credibility to the locker room. His resume spoke for itself and he proved he had plenty left in the tank. The work he put in was instrumental in turning the team around. His leadership was a great example for budding superstars Charles Woodson and Darrell Russell. Fast forward to the present day, and Gruden is attempting to recapture that with former-Seahawk K.J. Wright for the Raiders in 2021.

On September 2nd, 2021, Wright signed with the Raiders on a 1-year contract. The linebacking corps has been decimated by injuries this preseason. The injury bug has bitten Nicholas Morrow, Javin White, and to an extent, Nick Kwiatkoski. This rash of injuries has forced the Raiders to seek help via trade and the free agency market.

Last week they acquired one of Gus Bradley’s former disciples in Denzel Perryman from the Carolina Panthers. Bradley coached Wright in Seattle for two seasons (2011-2012).

As a rookie, Wright was so impressive that he pushed 2009 4th overall draft pick Aaron Curry off the roster. Ironically, Curry was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 2011 after just two regular season games. Wright’s grasp of the defense made it clear he was never going to relinquish the starting position to Curry.

During his 10 seasons in Seattle, Wright established himself as a premier outside linebacker. A strong case could be made for Wright and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner as the league’s best duo for nearly a decade. Deservedly, Wagner has garnered numerous awards and accolades but his running mate is no slouch.

Expect Wright to play on the strong side for the Raiders. 2020 prized free agent linebacker Cory Littleton plays the weak side. He looks to rebound on a disappointing inaugural season in the desert.

Signing a veteran like Wright is not without risk. He’s played in 159 football games (144 regular season and 15 postseason). He’s on the wrong side of 30 at 32 years old, and he’s on a defense with at least five new starters. Finally, he no longer has Wagner with him, who is likely a future Hall of Famer.

What Wright does bring to the Raiders is great instincts, outstanding coverage skills, and Gruden’s favorite ability: availability. He’s only missed 16 games in his career. A knee injury that required surgery cost him 11 games in 2018. He’s been a rock every season before and after.

Whether or not he’s able to continue his high level of play on a new team remains to be seen. Outside of Seattle, there was no better scenario for him to continue his playing career. He knows the scheme intimately and will relay what’s expected to the rest of his unit. If he can make a William Thomas type of impact in 2021, the Raiders defense could return to respectability in a hurry.

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