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’ Scout.com 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.