This article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
With the departures of its starting defensive tackles and top backup, the Detroit Lions entered the NFL draft with a glaring need for depth along an interior line that was the team’s backbone just months earlier. The unit that had set the tone for the third-ranked defense in 2014 was suddenly a weakness and in serious need of reinforcements.
Though the Lions added a five-time All-Pro, albeit an aging one, in Haloti Ngata, and signed rotational player Tyrunn Walker, the desire to add talent in the trenches was still apparent.
Lions General Manager Martin Mayhew surprisingly waited until day three of the draft to help fill the void, trading into the middle of the fourth round to grab Auburn DT Gabe Wright.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Wright started his final 23 games with the Tigers and proved to be a durable performer, playing in all 52 games in four years. After two seasons as a part-time player with nine starts, Wright broke out in 2013, starting the final 10 games while helping the Tigers reach the BCS National Championship game.
After lining up almost exclusively inside as the one-technique (shading the center) or three-technique (outside hip of the guard) as a junior, Wright was moved around the line this past season. He played defensive end when the Tigers moved to a 3-4 defense in certain situations, and even kicked out to end (the five technique) in the 4-3 at times.
Wright struggled to produce consistently in 2014 and was unable to match his play from the previous season. He did have himself a decent Senior Bowl, however his underwhelming performance as a senior likely dropped his stock into the fourth round, where the Lions were happy to snatch him up.
Per Pro Football Focus, last season, Wright had 17 quarterback pressures on 245 pass rush snaps for a Pass Rushing Productivity grade that ranked 32nd out of 92 draft eligible DTs. He struggled in the run game according to PFF, slotting 81st in Run Stop Percentage (defined as gaining 40% of required yardage on first down, 60% on second down, and the entire required yardage on third or fourth). PFF certainly isn’t the bible when it comes to grading football, but there is at least some tangible knowledge gained from these stats. Namely that Wright didn’t finish many plays in 2014 and the game tape and basic stats back that up.
Does Wright have the tools to be a productive player this year for the Lions and potentially start as he grows into his career? Let’s check the tape to see what the new No. 90 can bring to Detroit.
Per Auburn’s official website, Wright recorded 31 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 14 games as a junior. In 2014, Wright notched 24 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and one sack in 13 contests.
Burst off the snap
Though Wright is a smaller DT (see his spider graph), his combination of quickness and explosiveness at the snap of the ball is exceptional. He was usually the first player moving at the snap, often catching offensive linemen off guard with his burst.
On the first play against Ole Miss in 2013, Wright jets off the ball, extends his arms and uses his explosiveness and strength to gain leverage against the center.
Wright’s athleticism, explosiveness off the ball, and his knack for knifing into backfields is an excellent fit with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s one-gap scheme, something Wright recently spoke about. Austin and the Lions want their interior lineman to be disruptors and shoot gaps, which is a strength of Wright’s.
Though he was unable to make many stops as a senior and wasn’t as consistent as the previous year, Wright continued to penetrate through small creases in 2014, causing chaos for offenses when he did.
He’s unable to finish this play, but his penetration disrupts and slows Todd Gurley, allowing teammates to clean up after a minimal gain.
Again Wright slides into the backfield, which forces Gurley to run wide to the sideline. However in his pursuit of Gurley, Wright loses his leverage, can’t keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and is unable to shed the block and make a play.
Pass rush ability
After watching four games of Wright, I thought he was slightly more effective as a pass rusher. He has strong hands, works hard to push the pocket and brings surprising quickness as an interior rusher.
This play from last season was one of the most impressive efforts I saw from Wright. He displays active and heavy hands, delivering a powerful punch to the guard, and quickness and hustle to gain the edge and move the quarterback off his spot.
Wright only recorded one sack as a senior and often stalled if his first move was neutralized. He has the skills to push the pocket and generate a pass rush, especially if he is beside a veteran who grabs the attention of blocking schemes.
Wright was most effective working against guards and center, recording 10 QB hits last year and nine in 2013.
Wright employs an intriguing spin move that must be refined because he is sometimes out of control when he utilizes it. He splits the double team on this rush, spins inside and provides pressure up the gut.
Wright flashed the ability to push the pocket in his time at Auburn. The Lions benefitted immensely from Ndamukong Suh’s elite ability to rush the passer from the interior, and they will certainly take a step back in that department this season. Wright has an opportunity to earn pass-rushing chances if he can display his rush skills in training camp and the preseason.
Trouble disengaging blocks
If you watch Wright’s Auburn tape, you’ll notice that he was unable to consistently shed blocks, especially when he was initially stonewalled. There were multiple times when Wright had a step on his man, but then was unable to toss him aside and finish the play.
Carrying a similar frame as Suh and Nick Fairley, Wright isn’t a space eater or mauler and will have difficulty holding the point of attack against double teams in the run game. He struggled as a senior when offenses paid more attention to him after his breakout 2013 campaign.
In the 2015 Outback Bowl, Wright is blown off the line by a double team, allowing Melvin Gordon to roam free through Wright’s gap responsibility for six yards.
Here’s another example of Wright being badly blown off the ball when tag-teamed.
He struggles to shed blocks at times because of his propensity to play upright upon contact. This negates his leverage and power, though on the play above, he stayed low but was just out-matched. Wright may hold his own against the double-team in time, but because of his size and technique, he likely will continue to struggle early in his career if asked to hold the fort against multiple blockers.
Against LSU’s heralded tackle La’el Collins, Wright stood up too quickly, exposed his chest and could not disengage as the running back passed by.
You see the trend where Wright could not consistently break free from his counterpart and make a play on the ball. He will improve with quality coaching and repetitions, but it’s a weakness right now and a legitimate concern.
As seen last year, Wright wasn’t nearly disruptive enough when the offense concentrated on controlling him. However, if surrounded with other veteran talents where he is not the focal point of the defense, he can make an impact shooting gaps in the trenches. Wright must improve his consistency, and playing a low number of snaps and fighting for playing time in the rotation should force him to compete on every snap instead of occasionally stalling when his first move was negated.
With the Lions, Wright has an opportunity to make an immediate impact because of the team’s youth and inexperience behind Ngata. Walker, 25, has only one career start in 23 games, while 2014 fifth-round pick Caraun Reid recorded just two tackles in limited action as a rookie. Wright will be battling Reid for the top backup spot and faces real expectations to perform because of the losses of Suh, Fairley and C.J. Mosley. Austin expects to have the Georgia native in the DT rotation right away, and already has him pegged for 25-30 snaps per game.
Wright brings intriguing skills to the interior defensive line and is an obvious scheme match because of his mobility and burst off the ball. The question is whether he can regain his 2013 form and produce for a unit that, outside of Ngata, is raw and unproven.
If Wright can take advantage of a rare opportunity to earn major playing time as a rookie, he may surprise everyone and lessen the blow of the player who used to don the number 90.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game footage. All GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the Free Press.