Lions Sign Eric Wright; Are They Onto Something?

>> 7.29.2011

12 December 2010: Cleveland Browns cornerback Eric Wright (21) recover a fumble after Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) loses itat Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, NY.I almost overlooked him. I almost left him off my cornerback shopping list. “It would be a lot of extra typing,” I thought. “I’ve got to get this post up soon,” I fretted. But there was something about Eric Wright, something about his potential and production, something about his story intrigued me. I got a feeling I’ve gotten a few times before, a vibe like I’m onto something. So, I took the time to delve into Wright’s PFF data, and I’m glad I did:

Eric Wright’s inclusion on this list may surprise some, as the Browns’ 2007 2nd-round pick actually received death threats over his perceived poor play last season. PFF graded him poorly indeed, with a –4.3 overall. His coverage mark was a rotten –11.9, second-worst in the NFL. However, Wright intrigues me for several reasons: first, he’s 5’-10”, 190, so a decently-sized fellow. Second, was graded +3.3 in pass rush, third-best in the NFL, and +4.7 in run support, 12th-best in the NFL.

It’s true, Wright was burned for 6 TDs, and he allowed opposing quarterbacks a fifth-worst 121.5 passer rating. But he’s clearly physically gifted, and at 25 still quite young. I also identified a trend with the PFF data . . .

In 2008, Wright had the eighth-best overall cornerback PFF grade. Over 1052 snaps, he turned in an +11.1 rating, despite a –1.1 coverage mark. His run support and pass rush made such an impact, he was the only corner in the top 25 with an even slightly negative coverage mark. He played every snap at left CB. In 2009, he flip-flopped between right and left corner all season long, and his performances were uneven. At work for a whopping 1106 snaps, thrown at 89 times, Wright turned in an overall grade 0f –0.5.

In 2010, Wright played left corner exclusively, until he suffered a bone bruise and got moved in to nickel. He struggled all year long, turning in mostly neutral grades, plus four negatives and a single positive. Oddly, his best performance of the year was in Week 2 (+2.9), and his worst was Week 3 (-4.4) . . . what I’m driving at here is that Wright is a young, talented player with a lot of experience, and he’s proven to be exceptional—truly exceptional—at a couple different dimensions of his position. It’s true that the one exception, coverage, is the one we’re really looking for, but if he’s available for peanuts, he’s exactly the kind of reclamation project the Lions do brilliantly with.

In many ways, Eric Wright is as Chris Houston was: a 2007 second-round draft pick who made an immediate impact, was widely hailed as a an up-and-comer, then had a down year and was given up on. Wright had a longer track record of greater success, but his one bad year was a much bigger disaster.

Wright has always had talent. A three-star RB/DB out of San Francisco, he had offers from almost all of the Pac-10—and he committed to USC. As a redshirt freshman, he stepped on the field and started for the Trojans as they won the National Championship lost institutional control. Wright himself had four tackles and an interception for the Trojans as they won did not play in the 2005 BCS National Championship Orange Bowl.

In March 2005, Wright was accused of committing sexual assault. The charges were dropped, but the stigma didn’t disappear. Faced with a suspension, Wright chose to transfer to UNLV, sitting out a year before getting back on the field for what would be his final college season. He declared for the draft—and though many teams thought the 5’-10”, 190-pound had first-round talent, Wright fell due to character concerns over the incident:

Despite sparkling in workouts during the draft process, Wright also had to convince teams he was worth the risk on the character meter. The Browns were among several teams that rated him draftable.

Said Browns general manager Phil Savage, "I believe in second chances."

Savage said that, in addition to a team investigation that confirmed Wright had no legal issues before or after the incident two years ago, he relied on gut feeling. Savage interviewed Wright at the combine, visited with him at a workout and along with coach Romeo Crennel gained a feel when Wright came to Browns headquarters weeks before the draft.

Wright scored points with the Browns and other teams with his openness.

"He kind of just laid out his side of the story," Savage said. "He basically said, 'I made a mistake, and I haven't made a mistake since.' "

The Browns actually traded up for Wright, sending third- and fourth-round picks to Dallas, and swapping positions in the sixth, to add Wrights’s second-round slot. Per that USA Today article, then-Browns GM Phil Savage said he would have considered Wright at the Browns’ original second-rounder (36th overall) had he not traded it away to get Brady Quinn. Ahem.

Wright, as said above, quickly developed into an outstanding young corner. In 2008 and 2009, he started all 32 games for the Browns, had 7 interceptions, and 27 passes defensed. Then . . . something went wrong. The Cleveland Browns blog Dawgs by Nature said:

For the first three years of his career, Wright was a solid cornerback for the Browns. Opposing teams seemed to stay away from him and he rarely gave up the big play. Last year, the Browns received additional help at the position in Sheldon Brown and Joe Haden. Teams started going after Wright at the beginning of the season, and forever reason, he looked completely lost. It was not the same Wright we had seen his first three years in Cleveland. It was almost as bad as Jake Delhomme's playoff collapse when he was with the Panthers a couple years ago. When Delhomme threw a pass the following season, you always had a bad feeling. With Wright, whenever a team targeted him deep, you had the feeling that it was going to result in a touchdown. It usually did, especially if your name is Anquan Boldin.

Interestingly, the members of that blog voted at 2:1 clip to keep Wright around, and many of the comments suggested that the problem with Wright was being hung out to dry by a terrible pass rush. At the Browns’ site, the Orange and Brown Report, users speculated about personal problems, or some kind of off the field distraction. OBR member “Brownieman,” though, posited the following:

What I want to know... and I hope nickelbacker is still lurking around and will be willing to shed some light on this.... is did Eric REALLY have an off year? Or was it other circumstances? Up until last year Wright has been way above average for us, he has been our best corner since he was drafted. He was rarely abused by ANYONE before last year. Now I doubt he just forgot how to play defense.... something else had to be going on.

Does anyone think that Wright's struggles last year, may have anything to do with Ward blowing coverages? . . . If Ward had responsibilities over the top, and read the play wrong, it would have left Wright on an island, when he believed he had a man providing coverage further up the field. This would explain how WR's were able to get extreme amounts of separation over the top. Wright is not slow, and I find it hard to believe that he "couldn't" run with Anquan Boldin. It makes more sense, that Wright followed Boldin through his zone and then broke off coverage as he was leaving his zone and entering Wards area of the field... Only to realize that Ward was out of position, which in turn makes Wright abandon his responsibilities and try to provide some sort of coverage instead of letting a man just run free up the field . . . I may be off, but to me, it seems like Wright is taking the blame for Ward's growing pains.

Obviously, the Browns are letting Wright walk, so he can’t just be a victim of circumstance. To whatever degree it was his fault, Wright’s play took an unexpected, unprecedented step back last season. But there’s no denying that Wright has the tools and talent to be a top corner in the NFL—and spent three years proving he was on track to do just that before he derailed last year. Tom Kowalski’s recent Tweet bears this out:

Talked to a few NFL personnel people ... they think Detroit landed a terrific player in Eric Wright .. coming off bad year, but great talent

No one knows whether Wright can recover his previous form. For that reason, I’m glad he’s on a one-year deal—and I hope the Lions aren’t done signing starting-caliber cornerbacks. If Wright plays like he did last year, and Nate Vasher is the #2, the Lions’ secondary could well be their Achilles heel. However, if Wright bounces back like Houston did, and the Lions re-sign Houston? Suddenly the cornerbacks look very, very solid. Only time will tell whether Mayhew’s gamble pays off . . . but I feel like he’s onto something.


Ain’t Too Proud To Beg: Vote TLiW for #USMAP

>> 7.28.2011


Blogs with Balls, the premier (and, I think, only) national sports blogging conference, is putting together the first, soon-to-be-annual, sports media awards show. It goes by the delightfully meta name “Untitled Sports Media Awards Project,” or #USMAP for short. Take a few minutes to nominate your favorite sports writers, bloggers, talkers, and Tweeters at the BWB site. If you put in a good word for ol’ Ty, I’d appreciate it.


Justin Durant is a Lion; Another LB In The Works?


. . . and with that, the Lions secured the services of Justin Durant. When we went shopping for outside linebackers in the Old Mother Hubbard series, this is what we found:

The dark horse of the OLB free agent class is Justin Durant, a 6’-1”, 240-pound wrecking ball from the Jaguars—a wrecking ball with a couple of cracks. Just look at the radar chart above: Durant’s stonking +15.5 against the run is second-best in the NFL. His missed tackle rate, one per 8.1 made, is right in the middle of the pack. This suggests, like Bulluck, Durant is slicing through blocking to get to the correct lanes, over and over and over again, showing veteran savvy in just his fourth year, even if his finishing isn’t top-notch.

There are two big concerns about Durant: one is his inability to stay healthy; he’s missed at least two games in each of his first four seasons, plus six games last season. Second, he graded out as poorly against the pass as he did well against the run. His appalling –13.2 on coverage put him fourth-worst in the NFL, and his –1 in pass rush is below-average, too. He’s allowed a slightly-better-than-average 75.6% of his targets to be caught, and his passer rating allowed is dead on NFL average: 98.6, vs. 98.8 . . . but you don’t earn a –13.2 on only 491 snaps without being consistently poor in coverage. Durant has the physical tools to be an impact player, but so far it’s more potential than production.

Where this leaves us is a little bit uncertain. Mike O’Hara reported that the Lions love Durant’s ability to play inside or outside, and certainly his skill set lends itself to a move inside. However, Durant agreed only to a two-year deal; it seems unlikely that he’ll be tabbed to be the new quarterback of the defense.

Indeed, reports indicate that the Lions have laid a massive offer on Stephen Tulloch’s table, which wasn’t retracted when they landed Durant. If Tulloch eventually lands with the Lions (Dave Birkett of the Freep indicated that’s unlikely), he would doubtlessly take over the middle, and Durant would move outside.

Ideally, I think that's the role the Lions envision for Durant: a big, fast, athletic tackler who can shut down half the run game and rush the passer a bit. A good comparison might be Julian Peterson, circa 2009—only Durant will be entering his prime, not past it. Unfortunately, the Lions still need to add either a coverage OLB and keep Levy in the middle, or add a complete MLB and shift Levy outside. I don’t see Durant contributing to the nickel packages, either—he’ll be a two-down beast on the outside if he can stay healthy.

One of the best Jaguars sources out there, Alfie Crow from Big Cat Country, talked with Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus about the Jags’ free agents. Here are some of the things he said about Durant:

Khaled: Though he's more a two down player, you watch Justin Durant sometimes and think he could be one of the top ten linebackers in the league. Granted, in space he can look like one of the worst ten, but give him a two down role and he can really put himself about.

Alfie:As far as Justin Durant, he looked to me a classic case of missed potential. Physically he's what you ask for in a linebacker, but his instincts left a lot to be desired. He'd run himself out of plays and just couldn't stay healthy. More often than not, availability supercedes ability, especially at the linebacker position. He wound up being just average, and average is easily replaceable at linebacker.

Perhaps Justin Durant is, all things considered, an “average” all-around OLB—but as the PFF data shows, that “average” is a tantalizing mix of brilliant and cringeworthy. It’s true that you can get “unremarkable” linebackers anywhere, but brilliant is tough to come by. If the Lions can deploy the “brilliant” for 50% of the snaps, and take him off the field the other half, they might have gotten an incredible value. This jibes with the general approach the Lions have taken: get players with outstanding tools, put them in roles that maximize their talent.

The situation is changing rapidly; I’ve rewritten this post to reflect the latest news several times. But, if the Lions can add Tulloch (or another 3-down ILB like the Packers’ Nick Barnett), they will have massively upgraded the linebacker corps, and the defense as a whole. If they can’t add another top-notch all-around LB, they’ll have two athletic young players in Durant and Levy who can both play inside or outside. Considering they were starting special-teamers last season, even the worst-case scenario looks pretty good.


The Lions’ Free Agency Picture Gets Clearer

>> 7.27.2011

On Monday, I posted the timeline for contracts and signings, and noted that what happens midweek will set the stage for the moves to come:

Besides the rumors of who’s negotiating with who that will hit the wire come Tuesday lunchtime, keep a close watch on Thursday for the release of Lions veterans. Cuts, and whispers of renegotiated contracts for players like Jeff Backus, will hint broadly at the Lions’ approach. Will they be major players for major contributors, or just dipping a finger in the frosting of a rich free agent cake?

A few moves have already been made: Bryant Johnson has been informed of his impending release, Dave Rayner has agreed to return to compete for the kicking job, and free agent OLB Stephen Nicholas will return to the Falcons. Now, the National Football Post is reporting that the Lions have offered Titans MLB Stephen Tulloch a contract with a $10M bonus, and that Lions staff and players alike are helping recruit Tulloch to Detroit.

If they could land him, it would neatly upgrade two positions at once: Tulloch would step in as MLB, and DeAndre Levy would return to the outside. With Bobby Carpenter a free agent, the Lions would still have to add an OLB of some kind, but the LB corps would be greatly improved regardless.

The question remains: what are the Lions’ plans for the cornerback position? The amount of cap room the Lions have left isn’t great; my thought was they’d be able to get a handful of decent players, or perhaps make a big splash on one and get one more good guy. If Tulloch agrees to this apparently-massive deal, I’m not sure they’ll be able to make a run at Johnathan Joseph, as ESPN’s Chis Mortenson rumored.

Then again, as Sports Business Journal’s Liz Mullen pointed out on Twitter, the NFL’s new salary cap is “soft.” It’s a leaguewide maximum total, not a per-team maximum—and even then, there’s some wiggle room ($3M of exceptions in the first year, for example). Perhaps the Lions are simply going to go for broke—add two long-term, quality starters in Tulloch and Joseph, and round out the bottom of the roster with lots and lots of youth. I can’t say the vision I’m seeing through the fog is entirely unpleasant.


Thickening The Herd: The Lions’ UDFA Cattle Call

>> 7.26.2011

Last night, Twitter was burning up with rumors of undrafted free agent contract agreements. Speculation, rumor, confirmation; media and players and agents and fans all Tweeting at, about, and over each other about who’s going where. I was fielding questions about potential and actual signees, and I had to say something that I don’t like to say: “I don’t know.”

For starters, as I’ve said, I don’t know very much about college football. Once I get past Michigan State and their rivals in the Big Ten, my knowledge of NCAA pigskin is barely skin deep. I love the NFL draft, but I don’t typically “scout” prospects projected to go after the fourth round. I certainly don’t familiarize myself with potential UDFA. Why? Because I love the Lions, and I love the NFL—and, especially with the roster in its current state—undrafted free agent rookies have a Olympic mountain to climb to make the roster.

Let’s look at position we’re stressing about: Offensive Tackle. With Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus both coming off of injury, it would make sense to pursue some “help” at offensive tackle, right? Well, the Lions already have Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard, Tony Ugoh, and Johnny Culbreath behind those two. The Lions aren’t carrying six, or even five, pure offensive tackles on a roster of 53. Any UDFA is going to have to prove that he’s better than the guy the Lions drafted ahead of him, plus two of Fox, Hilliard, and Ugoh, just to make the team. It’s nearly impossible that a UDFA could actually provide “help” at the offensive tackle spot.

Of course, the starting roster is thinner in other places, but not by much. The Lions have 77 players on their roster, with 14 of them due to be free agents. With the new camp roster limit of 90, the Lions will be signing twenty-seven players over the coming week or so, and at least half of the resultant 90-man roster won’t even dress for Week 1. There will be an unprecedented number of “new Detroit Lions,” most of whom have almost no chance of impacting the Lions’ season.

When the news broke of the Lions’ agreement to terms with Alabama TE/FB/H-back Preston Dial, longtime commenter/Tweeter @Dustin_aka_D asked me if I knew whether Lions planned to use him as a tight end, or a fullback. @Dustin_aka_D saw the stacked depth chart at TE and wondered what the Lions were planning to do with Dial. Long story short, they plan to bring him into camp and see if he’s an NFL-caliber football player—the same as all these UDFAs.

I've said before that the Lions are going to the playoffs. They see themselves as a playoff team. They have a playoff-caliber roster. The days of the Lions signing a Randy Philips off the street and thinking, “Wow, this guy could upgrade our starting lineup!” are over. It’s not anything against these young men—if Dial proved himself the next Chris Cooley I’d be ecstatic—but a sign of how far the Lions have come in how short of a time.

So. Over the next few hours, let’s heartily welcome our new, young Lions. Let’s wish them a great camp and a successful showing and as long of a career in the NFL as they can muster. But, let’s not burden them—or ourselves, with any kind of expectations about what they’ll be able to contribute to the bottom line.


The NFL Lockout Is Over. What’s Next For the Lions?

>> 7.25.2011


In case you haven’t heard, the NFL Lockout is officially—really, truly, and finally—over. Don your silliest party hat, find one of those wheedly flicky-tongue things, pour yourself a pint of your favorite, and turn up “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.  The NFL lockout is officially over, and football can finally begin . . . well, mostly. Per SI’s obtained copy of the settlement terms, here’s how the timeline breaks down:

  • As of midnight tonight (Tuesday AM), players may have full, regular contact with team staff, and use team facilities for voluntary workouts as normal. Teams will be able to trade players currently under contract.
  • As of Tuesday at 10:00 AM, teams may sign rookies both drafted and un-. They may begin negotiating with other teams’ free agents.
  • The Lions’ training camp will open on Thursday.
  • As of Thursday at 4:01 PM, teams may waive or release veterans currently under contract.
  • As of Friday at 6:01 PM, teams may renegotiate existing contracts, and sign new veteran contracts. Signed rookies will be able to partake in organized practice at this time, and receive injury protection.
  • As of Thursday, August 4th, the new League Year begins [presuming the CBA has been ratified by the players], and all teams must be under the cap.

This sets the stage for the wildest week of football talk in the history of the Internet. In the course of the next five days, the Lions will open their doors, sign all their draft picks, fight all the other clubs to sign ten or so UDFA, begin the chess match of free agent negotiation, start training camp, and THEN sign new veterans as current ones leave, clawing and scrapping with the other 31 teams to get 90 (!) guys on the roster by this time next week.

Meanwhile, the Lions will have to mind their salary cap Ps and Qs: the cap will be set at $120,375,000 with an extra $3M in veteran exceptions. Per Roar Report capologist DeadStroke, the Lions carried ~$127M in cap charges back in March. Much more recently, ESPN’s John Clayton reported that after expected departures, the Lions would have $16.6M of cap room—but the Detroit News’s Chris McCosky wrote last Wednesday that he couldn’t figure out how Clayton found anywhere near that much cap space.

This makes Nnamdi Asomugha a pipe dream—and even the Lions’ reported top target, Johnathan Joseph, a stretch. Besides the rumors of who’s negotiating with who that will hit the wire come Tuesday lunchtime, keep a close watch on Thursday for the release of Lions veterans. Cuts, and whispers of renegotiated contracts for players like Jeff Backus, will hint broadly at the Lions’ approach. Will they be major players for major contributors, or just dipping a finger in the frosting of a rich free agent cake?

For tonight, though, we celebrate! Come down to the blue bonfire, and make yourself at home. The casks of cider are full to bursting, and the blue flame has scarcely roared higher. We’ll toast the return of the team we love, the new players we’re about to welcome, and the glorious new season we’re surely about to go through together. This is our time; this is our year. Money couldn’t stop it, the lawyers couldn’t stop it, and the bickering couldn’t even slow it down. Celebrate with me, friends, together.


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