With the departures of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, the Detroit Lions had a gaping hole they needed to fill at defensive tackle this offseason. They had already traded for Haloti Ngata and signed Tyrunn Walker -- who many believe to be a hidden gem -- through free agency, and they added even more depth after trading back into the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft to pick Auburn DT Gabe Wright.
Former Lion Ndamukong Suh may not be the most popular person in the Metro Detroit area right now, but no one could deny the amount of work he put into each and every offseason to prepare himself for regular-season play. The Lions are getting a similar player with Gabe Wright, at least from an effort standpoint.
Here is what Tim Twentyman had to say about Wright:
Gabe Wright had a simple goal heading into the rookie minicamp earlier this month. He said more than anything else he wanted to be the player who worked the hardest.
Wright was relentless in individual drills. He was consistently the first player off the ball and his quickness stood out in those drills. In the team portion of practice, Wright said he made it a point to hustle down the field to make plays on ball carriers, something defensive line coach Kris Kocurek emphasizes in practice on a daily basis.
Wright had a much better 2013 campaign than 2014, which had a lot to do with how he was used in Auburn's defensive scheme. In 2013, he was exclusively a 1-gap rusher from the 1- or 3-technique. Last year, Wright saw some snaps in 2-gap formations from the 5-tech and struggled badly.
Wright isn't as long as you would expect for a 6-foot-3 defensive tackle. He has decent long speed, but lacks in almost every other athletic department. He has some pretty large hands, however, and his 34 bench reps were tied for second among all DTs.
Quick First Step
The one thing that really jumps out at you with Gabe Wright is his quickness off the snap. He's often the first player to react and has an elite first step.
(GIFs via Draft Breakdown)
In the play above, Wright takes advantage of a poor read by the quarterback on a designed zone-read by getting a great jump off the snap. He does a solid job of gaining leverage at the point of attack and using his ability to stack and shed to get to the ball carrier.
Here's a nice little tidbit for Lions fans. On this play, Wright is once again the first player to jump the snap and manages to swim past the right guard and beat current Lions starting center Travis Swanson, resulting in a tackle for a loss.
Wright is actually lined up directly over the center in this final example, which was an anomaly throughout the past two years. Nevertheless, he still manages to showcase his quickness and violent hands to force the incompletion on third-and-long.
Earlier I mentioned Wright's desire to give it his all until the final whistle and be the hardest working guy on the field. I had actually read the aforementioned Tim Twentyman article prior to taking an in-depth look at Wright, but it became clear that after just a few minutes of film study, that's exactly the type of player he is.
Wright is not the type of player who likes to give up on plays, and he'll chase the ball carrier down as far as he has to if it means he has a shot at making a tackle. This play against Georgia running back Todd Gurley shows you exactly what I mean.
In this example, Wright shows off his relentlessness as a pass rusher. He leaves his chest exposed after the initial swim move and gets stood up by the center, but he doesn't give up on the play and uses his violent hands to chuck him to the side and get the sack.
Wright's football IQ is one of the most underrated aspects of his game, and he does a phenomenal job of reading and reacting to screens. This was one of several plays where Wright was able to quickly recognize the screen, and this time he manages to slow Gurley down for a minimal gain.
I was most impressed with Wright's overall performance against Georgia last year, especially versus the run. This game was by far his best performance as a run stuffer, however, and I would have liked to have seen him be more of a consistent threat versus the run and put his large frame to better use (6-foot-3, 300 pounds). Specifically, he'll need to work on disengaging from his assignment and doing a better job of locating the ball carrier. His 34 bench reps at the NFL Combine doesn't often match what you see on tape.
Consistency is what Wright will need to improve on this offseason. It was just as common to see him getting swallowed up and driven away from the play as it was seeing him fighting and giving up little-to-no ground at the line of scrimmage.
Concerns With Pad Level/Upright Stance
My biggest concern with Wright is his tendency of losing his leverage at the point of attack and leaving his chest exposed. In this play, Wright immediately rushes off the snap with a high pad level and gets stuffed by the opposing center. I expect defensive line coaches Kris Kocurek and Jim Washburn to focus heavily on getting Wright to improve on lowering his pad level and getting better leverage off the snap.
Another noticeable concern was Wright's inability to finish plays in the backfield. I would have liked to have seen him capitalize on more of the opportunities given to him, especially with his lack of production in college. You could argue that his short arm length (32 5/8 inches) may have something to do with it.
One last critique I have for Wright is his lack of success on counter moves. He'll occasionally throw in a spin move, but it often ends like this.
Outlook for 2015
Gabe Wright is a raw product who shows flashes both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher. I would say that he's more polished versus the run but has more upside as a pass rusher if he can work on his pad level and combine it with his elite first step and quickness off the snap.
Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker are set to be the two starting DTs for the Lions, and with the lack of depth behind them, I expect Detroit's coaching staff to heavily incorporate Wright into their rotation and give him some looks from both the 1- and 3-technique.
Some will try to compare Wright to fellow Auburn alumnus Nick Fairley, but they are two completely different players. While Wright may not be as talented as Fairley, his attitude and determination are a huge upgrade, and there's a good chance he'll be able to keep himself off the sideline due to injuries at a higher rate than Fairley.