Browns inside linebacker Scooby Wright undercut a deep out route, intercepted a pass thrown by fellow rookie Cody Kessler and caught the attention of coach Hue Jackson as he barreled toward the end zone.
“That a way, Scooby. That a way, Scooby,” Jackson said, running toward Wright to congratulate him with a pat on the helmet. “Good job, Scooby. Scooby, nice job. Scooby, nice job. Scooby, that a baby. That a baby. That a way. That a way.”
The scene unfolded last month during a rookie minicamp practice at FirstEnergy Stadium. Although Jackson and his coaching staff won’t be able to adequately evaluate their players until they strap on pads in training camp, which opens July 29, they’re excited about Wright. The interception was especially encouraging because Wright barely dropped into pass coverage at the University of Arizona and it’s been a point of emphasis in the early stages of his NFL career.
“He’s done an excellent job of trying to learn our defense, working very hard. He’s going to have a bright future,” Browns inside linebackers coach Johnny Holland said three weeks ago as mandatory minicamp wrapped up. “Scooby plays with the effort that we like. He’s a very intense player, and he had a lot of production in college.”
No one can deny the production.
Wright followed a solid freshman year with a phenomenal sophomore season in 2014. He ranked in the top five among FBS players with 163 tackles, 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles, becoming the sixth unanimous All-America selection in school history. He also earned the Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award, Rotary Lombardi Award, Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Knee and foot injuries, however, limited him to just three games last season as a junior and damaged his draft stock. He returned for the Gildan New Mexico Bowl in December and helped Arizona prevail 45-37 over New Mexico, notching defensive MVP honors with a game-high 15 tackles, including 11 solo and 3˝ for loss, two of which were sacks.
Concerns about durability and whether he has enough speed to excel at the game’s highest level — he posted a lackluster time of 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine — contributed to Wright’s plummet in the draft. NFLDraftScout.com analyst Dane Brugler projected him as a third- or fourth-round selection. The Browns nabbed him in the seventh round with the 250th of 253 picks.
Wright responded by crying, bursting out of his parents’ house and leaping over a fence in the backyard and into a swimming pool as an ESPN camera captured the moment.
The Browns will jump for joy, too, if Wright continues to defy those who doubt him. His social media handles — @TwoStarScoob on Twitter and SeventhRoundScoob on Instagram — remind fans he’s driven to prove critics wrong.
“I’m just having fun with it,” Wright, a native of Windsor, Calif., said last week as Browns rookies participated in a youth football camp at the stadium. “It’s nothing too serious. Just kind of a badge of honor.
“It’s been like that my whole life. I was a two-star recruit [coming out of Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa]. Only had one offer. But I did my thing in college and then got hurt.”
With only two full collegiate seasons under his belt, the 5-foot-11ľ, 239-pound Wright has the potential to be a steal.
“His production he had as a college football player his sophomore year, if he had been healthy, there’s a possibility he could have gone higher [in the draft],” Holland said. “Scooby always plays with a chip on his shoulder. [People] probably told him can’t do certain things, and I think that motivated him to play.
“He’s shown he’s overcome [skepticism about his speed and size] ’cause he’s been a defensive player of the year, won all the awards and made a lot of plays. … Smart players, there’s a place for them in this league. Everybody’s not a 4.5 guy [in the 40-yard dash], and everybody’s not 6-3, 245 pounds, but Scooby has something that you want in a player. He has heart. He works hard. He wants to be good. He comes to work every day. He’s a lunch-pail guy, and we like those kind of guys.”
They’re not the only ones. If Wright hadn’t been drafted, he’d be with the Arizona Cardinals.
“Scooby’s a great blitzer, and I actually had Scooby on the phone, begging him to come with us as a free agent because I think he has something special about him, and the Browns drafted him,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians told reporters last month.
Wright, though, has a long way to go before anyone in the NFL remembers him for anything other than his catchy moniker (His given name is Philip Anthony Wright III, but his father nicknamed him after the famous cartoon dog to avoid confusion with dad and grandpa.)
“I’ve still got a lot I need to fine-tune,” said Wright, who’ll turn 22 on Aug. 28. “I don’t think I’ve even touched my ceiling as a player yet.”
The Browns have high expectations for free-agent acquisition Demario Davis and 2014 third-round pick Chris Kirksey as their starting inside linebackers. Wright must convince the coaches he can contribute on special teams if he wants to earn a roster spot this summer.
“I have an opportunity,” Wright said. “I’m going to just try to take the most advantage of it. I can’t think too far ahead. I’ve just got to think of getting better these next couple of weeks, getting strong, faster and more mentally prepared.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.