49ers hire K.J. Wright, former Seahawks Pro Bowler, as assistant linebackers coach

Former Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright is the new assistant linebackers coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he announced on social media Monday.

Former Mississippi State football great K.J. Wright helping Olive Branch

Wright, 34, retired in July 2022 after 11 seasons in the NFL, 10 of which were spent with the Seahawks. Wright also played one season with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2021. His coaching debut is a reunion with new 49ers defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen, who spent eight seasons on Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle coaching special teams and the secondary. Sorensen joined San Francisco’s defensive staff in 2022 and was recently promoted from passing game specialist to replace Steve Wilks, who was fired after the Super Bowl.

Wright interviewed for a position on Mike Macdonald’s staff, a source briefed on the hiring process said, but the new Seahawks coach went in a different direction. Macdonald hired recently retired linebacker Josh Bynes as a defensive assistant and linebackers coach. Bynes spent 12 seasons in the NFL and played for Macdonald in Baltimore from 2017-19 and again in 2022.

A fourth-round pick in 2011, Wright was a 10-year starter in Seattle and a member of the 2013 squad that won the franchise’s only Super Bowl. He ranks third all-time in tackles and made the Pro Bowl in 2016.

The linebacker position is central to how the 49ers operate defensively. Strong play there is the key to tying together pass rush and coverage. In fact, one of Kyle Shanahan’s primary stated reasons for Steve Wilks’ dismissal was that the former defensive coordinator didn’t mesh as well with the team’s linebackers as the 49ers would have liked. In former defensive coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers had a pair of leaders beyond linebackers coach Johnny Holland who specialized in connecting with players at that position. They apparently have felt the need to refortify that part of the coaching staff.

Wright was a very good NFL linebacker for a decade. In Seattle, he played under Carroll, whose defense served as the original prototype for the 49ers back when Saleh — who’d coached Wright with the Seahawks — implemented it back in 2017. So the 49ers are striving to re-root themselves in schematic and technical continuity, and that’s especially clear when this hire is paired with Sorensen.

Wright has never coached before, but the 49ers certainly remember how effectively Ryans — who was also green at the time — learned as an assistant linebackers coach under Holland. They presumably would like to see if Wright, who was known to be particularly in tune with pre-snap keys, can take a similar developmental path as a teacher. The 49ers have two second-year linebackers, Dee Winters and Jalen Graham, who are looking for tutelage as they strive to become more regular contributors.

And of course, the 49ers also have a pair of established names at linebacker, both of whom Wright is eminently familiar with.

“I’m a big fan of Fred Warner,” Wright said on his podcast earlier this year. “I’m a big fan of Dre Greenlaw.”

Wright isn’t the first ex-Seahawks player to join the 49ers. Of course, cornerback Richard Sherman famously signed with San Francisco in 2018. That was after Malcolm Smith joined the 49ers in 2017 to follow Saleh, the former Seattle staffer.

Such defections have become a staple of this NFC West rivalry, and they can be traced back to Shanahan’s respect for Seattle’s defense system when Wright played there. Shanahan liked the defense so much, in fact, that he hired Saleh as his first defensive coordinator in 2017 and makes sure that the 49ers continue running a version of it to this day.

Respect goes both ways, as illustrated by Wright in a 2023 interview with NBC Sports.

“For the most part I was pretty cool, but one thing that I did do is when I made a play, a person that I loved to look to was the San Francisco 49ers sideline — in particular, Kyle Shanahan,” Wright said. “He would wear his hat, it would be all low. He’ll just be calling his plays and I look at him. I’m like, ‘How dare you even think about running that play to my side? I know you see me. Don’t run that screen to my side.’

“When I made a play that Kyle Shanahan drew up, I let him know, ‘Yeah, I sniffed that out. Run it somewhere else.’ … He’d pretend like he don’t see me. He has his hat all low, the playbook over his face. I know he saw me. He heard me loud and clear, but he didn’t say anything back.”

It’s fair to bet that those conversations came up during Wright’s interview with Shanahan.

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