The Cleveland Browns, a year ago, thought their defensive line was going to become a strength.
The core group appeared impressive with All-World Myles Garrett on one edge with veteran and former first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney on the opposite side. The talented Chase Winovich was brought over in a trade to provide exceptional pass-rushing depth. In the middle, DT Jordan Elliott was finally going to start going into his third season and plug holes in the center of the defense. To help Elliott, former first-round pick Taven Bryan was signed in free agency.
Draft picks brought in to assist this group included defensive ends Alex Wright, Isaiah Thomas, and defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey along with undrafted rookie free agents Glen Logan and Roderick Perry.
Even before the season began, the defensive tackle group was questioned as to its eventual effectiveness. The defensive ends were heralded as one of the strongest units on the team.
With Garrett and Clowney with Winovich as a quality stand-in, the defensive line looked good and played very well for most of the season. Unfortunately, Winovich went down with a hamstring injury in mid-September and did not return until right before Thanksgiving.
The silver lining to his injury opened the door for the rookie Wright.
Wright (6’-5”, 267 pounds) was selected in the third round of the NFL draft out of UAB. Coming out of high school he had six college offers, but none were from large football powerhouses. Growing up in Elba, Alabama, he stayed relatively close to home.
He was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team and was then twice named Second Team All-USA Conference his final two years before declaring for the draft. He was known for getting into the offensive backfield and had 11.5 sacks plus 19 tackles for loss while at UAB.
As a rookie, Wright wasn’t slated to play all that much. Seventh-round pick Thomas even less. Free agent signee Isaac Rochell was on the roster after being brought up from the practice and competed for playing time as well.
Wright had a very good training camp. In Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers, he had only 17 defensive snaps along with five special teams snaps. But leading up to Week 3 Winovich went down and subsequently landed on IR. Wright was elected to take his place in the rotation and upped his defensive capabilities to 47 defensive snaps. For the two months that Winovich was laid up, Wright’s defensive snaps remained in the low 40s to upper 30s and saw a diminished role on special teams.
This playing time was crucial to Wright’s development being thrown into the deep end to sink or swim. And he responded well and often took snaps away from a healthy Clowney.
Wright ended up playing the second most snaps for the entire season behind Garrett. This means more defensive reps than Clowney and Winovich, two highly-anticipated veterans the defense was counting on to become ultra-productive. Garrett had 817 snaps (75.02%), Wright 542 snaps (49.77%), Clowney 493 snaps (45.27%), and Winovich 178 snaps (16.35%) were the leaders at defensive end.
Not that Wright had an exceptional rookie season. He did not and mostly wasn’t pretty. Overall, his season could be labeled as fair with sometimes poor to a few games overly decent. But he had gotten a lot of playing time.
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The decision was made towards the end of last year that Clowney would not be invited back. A good run defender, he had just 28 total tackles all season, 10 starts, and two sacks. His lack of production was an issue, but his mouth was another matter when he was critical of the coaching staff regarding his usage in games and the fact that he surmised the franchise did everything in its power to progress Garrett’s stats. He was a healthy scratch for the season finale. In March, the Browns made it official and released him.
Rochell had been cut towards the end of 2022. Winovich was allowed to sign elsewhere in free agency. Thomas had played sparingly all season with less than 15% of defensive snaps and a lot of special teams opportunities.
The thought process to all appeared that Wright would compete for the starting right defensive end position opposite Garrett.
At 6’-5” he had a great wingspan including 34” arms which resulted in five batted passes. His total tackles were only 28 with zero sacks, but his best attribute was stopping the run. Garrett had just 60 tackles in 16 games, but his 16 sacks really stood out.
Maybe Garrett could be the elite pass rusher while Wright was a dominant run-stop specialist?
Apparently, that question did not sit well with new DC Jim Schwartz. Not one bit. The outside defensive ends are to be edge pass rushers.
In free agency, GM Andrew Berry signed Ogbo Okoronkwo from the Houston Texans and then brokered a trade with the Minnesota Vikings for veteran pass-rushing guru Za’Darius Smith. In addition, Isaiah McGuire was drafted in the fourth round this year, and undrafted rookie free agent Lonnie Phelps was given a huge contract to compete in this year’s camp.
These two players threw a huge monkey wrench into the notion that Wright would become the new starter at right DE. This was a major change. Almost immediately, a backup role seemed imminent despite playing a lot more than anyone had expected during his rookie season.
This off-season was a productive one for Wright. DC Schwartz had praised his work ethic and dedication to the weight room. His overall strength improved.
Then, it happened.
In the Browns’ first preseason games against the New York Jets in the Hall of Fame Game, Wright injured his knee. At first, it wasn’t perceived as an issue, but the end result was he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery the Tuesday after the game. Although the procedure was minor, it kept him out of the remainder of training camp and all of the other preseason games.
Because the damage was negligible and the surgery was a success, the Browns kept him on the final 53-man roster on the final cutdown. It was assumed that the coaching staff would place him on IR/return which would not allow him to play until after the bye week on October 8. But his recovery was better than expected and on September 1, he returned to the practice field.
Coming back to practice does not mean he is 100%, it simply computes that he has avoided the IR/return list and may or may not be ready for Week 1. But the doctors have released him to get back into practice mode which will move him towards participating in a live game sooner than expected.
After last season’s effort and the work he had in training camp this year, he has shown a lot more progress toward offering this defensive line a deeper rotation.
With his decent run-stopping abilities, it has been the hope that he can evolve into a pass rusher who may even become a part of the defensive tackle rotation as well. He has the size the Browns want at the DE position and is a good run stuffer.
Issues that Wright has been set on a path to improve include taking better angles in pursuit, a better first step, plus he needs an uptick in technique. His role currently is to stop the run while maintaining his lane and work on improving as a pass rusher. Positive production is what Cleveland wants to see out of Wright this year. Become a part of the rotation along with Garrett, Ogbo, and ZDS, and become more than just a project defensive end. His versatility is a huge plus for him.
The fact that the Browns played him so much last season can only be construed as a belief that he will develop into a viable pass rusher to go along with his run-stopping abilities to go along with his massive frame. Size and strength are what Schwartz wants on the field so that the defense can stack bodies against the run while the pocket is not a safe haven for quarterbacks to sit and survey the field.
But this year is much different. Garrett, Ogbo, and ZDS will get the lion’s share of snaps. Phelps is now on the practice squad and could be called up if needed. McGuire adds pressure to Wright in that he played a much higher level of competition in his college days and has explosive strength.
If Wright can work on his pass-rushing skills, improve the weaknesses that Schwartz has outlined, help out along the DT front more as a three-tech, and continue to show he is more than adequate at stopping the run, Wright has the opportunity to be an integral part of the initial four-man defensive end rotation and occasionally slide inside.
If he struggles, he could be in jeopardy of playing time as McGuire may show that he has the capability needed to help out with that rotation.