Opposing quarterbacks seldom threw Eric Wright’s way when he played cornerback at UNLV in 2006. His coverage was so good that an entire segment of the field often was taken out of play.
Wright knew that wouldn’t be the case in the NFL, at least not early in his career. Quarterbacks would test the Cleveland Browns rookie often as he made the comparative climb from Mount Charleston — that is, the Mountain West Conference — to Mount Everest.
Four times in Wright’s first three games, a player he was trying to cover scored a touchdown. Wright was credited with 10 tackles in his second game, but coach Romeo Crennel and his staff were tempted to bench him after he was burned for a touchdown in Week 3 against the Raiders.
The Browns’ brain trust decided to give him another chance.
Wright rewarded their faith with a solid game against the Baltimore Ravens and an even more promising performance against the New England Patriots.
Wright — making news on the field rather than off it — justified the Browns’ aggressiveness on the first day of the NFL Draft last year. They picked him despite character questions that caused other clubs to back off.
And the Browns are heartened by Wright’s progress as they prepare for this year’s draft without a first-round pick.
“I think we maybe have the 53rd pick, and that ironically is the spot Eric Wright was taken last year,” general manager Phil Savage said. “If we could get a player of his caliber that could come in and play and contribute like he did this year, we would feel good about that.”
The Browns showed how much they wanted Wright by trading up to draft him. Cleveland sent the Dallas Cowboys its third-, fourth- and sixth-round picks from that draft.
Wright was the first player to leave UNLV early for the draft. He also was the highest Rebels draft pick since running back Ickey Woods went No. 31 to the Cincinnati Bengals in 1988.
But Wright didn’t look like a first-year player in training camp, staying with veteran receivers stride for stride and winning the starting job.
“From Day One when I got drafted, I knew I was going to have a pretty good shot at going in and contributing early,” Wright said. “I just tried to stay positive and continue to learn and continue to grow and to play.
“When I ended up being a starter, it wasn’t really surprising.”
His first game was at home against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, and he was matched up against veteran receiver Hines Ward much of the day. Though Ward had so-so numbers, making three catches for 51 yards, he scored a touchdown in a 34-7 Pittsburgh victory.
Wright, though, savored an experience he had imagined many times.
“With that being my first game, there’s no better way to start off your NFL career than against Pittsburgh as a Cleveland Brown,” Wright said.
Ward was one of many tough receivers Wright would face as a rookie. He got close up with New England’s Randy Moss and Cincinnati’s Chad Johnson, but he said defending talented Browns receivers Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius and Kellen Winslow in practice helped prepare him.
One of his more demanding assignments was against Cincinnati’s T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Week 2. Wright wasn’t used to playing in the slot, and Houshmandzadeh made eight catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns. When the teams met again in the next-to-last game, Wright broke up two passes and Houshmandzadeh caught just two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s really good,” Houshmandzadeh said. “I thought he and (the Bengals’) Leon Hall were the two best corners coming out of the draft last year, and they both had excellent rookie seasons. I’ve got to go against him twice a year. I can’t think of many corners with more potential.”
Of course, with potential comes painful lessons. Wright’s first matchup against Houshmandzadeh and the Bengals was part of a difficult three-game stretch to begin his pro career. Wright’s lowest moment occurred in Week Three at Oakland when he bit on a third-and-1 play-action fake, and the Raiders’ Ronald Curry got by for a 41-yard touchdown catch.
Wright said many of his early struggles occurred because he was trying too hard.
“When you get into a new place, you always want to do everything right, you want to be as coachable as possible,. You want to be a great teammate,” Wright said. “And at times, I felt like I sacrificed a lot of myself essentially to be that.”
Though coaches weren’t pleased with Wright’s play, they decided to keep him in the starting lineup. He bounced back with a strong effort against the Ravens, leading the Browns with nine tackles.
The following week, Wright helped hold New England’s Moss to three catches for 46 yards and no touchdowns.
“I really just needed to take the pressure off myself and reassure myself I’m a great player,” Wright said. “I was feeling extremely confident, and I felt like I still wasn’t myself, in my mold that I usually played in. I was able to adjust and find that midway through (the season) and start playing a lot better.”
Just as Wright was starting to pick up the pro game, though, he was driven to the ground in the first quarter at Baltimore on Nov. 18 and sprained his right knee. That caused him to miss the rest of that game and the following two.
Wright returned for the final four games, starting three. He said he was pleased to not only get back on the field but “compete at a high level and play well for having damaged goods.”
After a 4-12 season in 2006, the Browns were expected to struggle in 2007. They finished 10-6 for their first winning season since going 9-7 in 2002.
“From what I’ve been told, the whole morale and work ethic was totally different from the year before,” Wright said.
The problem for the Browns was their heartbreaking end. They tied the Steelers for first place in the AFC North, but Pittsburgh swept the season series to claim the tiebreaker.
Cleveland also missed out on a wild card, losing out to the Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5) and Tennessee Titans (10-6).
Coming so close should provide extra motivation for the Browns as they prepare for next season.
“Everybody wants to go to the playoffs because — as you can see now — anything can happen,” Wright said. “You can definitely shake it up. We felt like we were one of those teams that if we did get in, we were actually going to go further than anybody would expect. So we’re definitely going to be motivated to … build on what we’ve already started.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or (702) 387-2914.