With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Baylor receiver Kendall Wright, who was a lot more than just Robert Griffin III's primary target over the last two seasons. In 2008 and 2009, when he was catching as many passes from Blake Szymanski and Kirby Freeman as he was from the consensus second overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Wright still showed that he was a playmaker, leading the Bears in receptions for four straight seasons. But when Griffin topped out in 2011, Wright was right there with him, catching 108 passes for 1,663 yards (a 15.4 per-catch average) and 14 touchdowns.
A less than stellar combine (we'll get to that later) overshadowed his game tape to some, but Wright was determined to make good, and he did so at his Pro Day, timing out at 4.41 and 4.46 in the 40-yard dash. Wright's 4,004 career receiving yards is the school's record by a crushing margin -- 1,300 yards more than any predecessor. He may be 5-foot-10 and just 198 pounds, but he brings characteristics of bigger receivers to the table -- he has a vertical leap of 42 inches, and he's squatted 550 pounds before.
When you add it all up, except for a bad combine and a few schematic limitations, it's kind of surprising that more people aren't talking about Kendall Wright as a top of the first round player and potentially dominant impact weapon in the NFL -- especially since the NFL is leaning very much in the direction of Wright's best position on the field.
Pros: Wright has the speed to line up outside and torch most of the best cornerbacks in straight-line races or on the boundary, but where he really shines is as an explosive slot receiver. Not only is he incredibly quick to the point on quick slants and crosses, but he's very tough when he gets the ball over the middle -- he doesn't fear traffic at all. Has at least one extra gear and can absolutely peel away from potential tacklers. Gets from a start-and-stop to top speed very quickly. Terrifically elusive in the open field; you'll frequently see Wright juke deep defenders right out of position and keep running. Has rare lateral explosiveness in space and will make DBs look like they're standing still to get to the sideline and upfield. Former standout basketball player can high-point the ball in ways that negate the advantage defenders would have over other 5-foot-10 receivers.
On comebacks, Wright catches the ball cleanly, gets his body turned immediately, and it's off to the races again. Tremendous quickness on last-second cuts -- he's a nightmare to cover on dig routes, quick ins and outs, and comebacks because he can get free from blanket coverage at the right time. Always has an eye for the ball, even when he's not the target. Caught a touchdown pass against Oklahoma last season that was actually a deflection off another receiver's hands. Has the potential to destroy zone coverage because he'll just split through the spaces and beat the corner/safety combo downfield in ways that bring Randy Moss with the 2007 Patriots to mind. Surprisingly good blocker -- in fact, the physical nature of his play is the thing people don't talk about with Wright, but it really does show up on tape.
Cons: In Baylor's wide-open offense, Wright didn't face a lot of press coverage -- he wasn't re-distributed a lot and was able to use his speed to its best advantage. He could get beaten up as he's not used to at the next level, which could take some adjusting -- another reason I think he'd be an ideal slot receiver at the next level. Prone to drops at times (small hands) and doesn't always adjust to off-throws at an elite level.
To put it mildly, Wright's combine was a severe disappointment. I wrote the pool report on him from Lucas Oil Stadium, and I was shocked at how slow and chunky he looked.
For a speed receiver, Wright looked bigger than he should have -- too thick around the trunk especially. His unofficial 4.61 40 was matched by the fact that he looked much slower on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium than he ever did on Baylor tape. He came out of the blocks all over the place on his 40 -- he didn't look quite as slow as his time represented, but his overall performance was a disappointment ... His best catch of the say was the long seam route, which shouldn't be a surprise, since that's the route he killed everyone with in college. He did have nice hand catches in both gauntlets, but he was very wavy on the line; he couldn't keep himself straight. He seems like a player who's used to outrunning his mistakes.
Wright adjusted to an overthrow inside on the short cut route. He rounded of his route a bit, though it wasn't the worst route he ran all day. The 10-yard out-and-up was more of a problem -- he has a tendency to round off his routes, or start and stop instead of slamming a speed cut. He had another stutter-step on the 13-yard dig, though he made a good adjustment catch. He had decent speed on the deep route on the numbers, but couldn't catch an overthrow by Kellen Moore (yes, an overthrow by Kellen Moore. Believe it!)
It was a very atypical performance, and though he redeemed himself to a point at his Pro Day, Wright surely fell in the eyes of some talent evaluators, There are some players who probably would have been better off failing a drug test at the combine than showing up out of shape, because it negates their efforts so severely on that most important stage. Teams that go back to the game tape will find the re-affirmation they need -- Wright is a speed demon and a great football player with a lot to offer.
Conclusion: As NFL passing games expand, and the league realizes the importance of meeting spread offense concepts halfway, the slot receiver in multi-receiver sets has become a position of paramount importance. In 2011, the New York Giants led the league in three-receiver sets, and speed slot receiver Victor Cruz was the gamebreaker of Eli Manning's dreams. Cruz went undrafted, but what he's done to defenses in forcing nickel and dime coverages with his ability to shoot up the seam and scare safeties to death is a point of study in other front offices.
It's a chicken-or-egg question -- has the slot corner increased in importance because of the expanded slot receiver concept, or is it the other way around? No matter -- it's a copycat league, and the Super Bowl champions did Kendall Wright a very big favor by making his ideal position that much more valuable. He's projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick in most mocks, but there's at least one player every year taken far earlier than people expect. This year, Kendall Wright could very well be that guy. There are times when he'll remind you of DeSean Jackson and Steve Smith, but for now, it's best to comp Wright with the guy who's probably going to make him a lot of money.
Pro Comparison: Victor Cruz, New York Giants
More Shutdown 50:
#13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama | #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina | #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy