Following the opening practice of OTAs that was open to members of the media last week, I asked a member of the Bengals front office staff if there were any little-known players that had impressed him that day.
“James Wright,” he answered.
Wright is the wide receiver and special teams ace out of LSU that Cincinnati selected in the 7th round of this year’s draft. After receiving that positive review of the rookie from one Bengals staffer, I asked wide receivers coach James Urban what he thought of Wright’s first day on the field.
“I saw today what I thought I’d see and what I hoped to see,” Urban told me. “We did a lot of research on him – a lot of credit goes to our scouts – and I think we had a pretty good read on him. He’s got to grow and keep getting better, but he competed his tail off and did not look out of place today.”
If you only looked at Wright’s receiving stats in college, it might have been a head-scratcher when the Bengals drafted him. He finished his college career with just 25 catches including zero his senior year.
“He was in a situation where LSU primarily played with two receivers and those two were drafted in the first round (Odell Beckham) and the second round (Jarvis Landry),” said Urban. “He found a beautiful role and embraced it as a special teams star down there.”
“Life is a challenge,” said Wright. “You have to adapt to whatever is in front of you and make the best of the situation. That’s what I felt that I did in college and did it to the best of my ability.”
Wright started at wide receiver in the BCS Championship game as a sophomore and began the following season in the same role. But an injury early in his junior year altered his college career.
“James was a starter at wide receiver before he hurt his shoulder and lost his spot,” said Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. “He got ‘Wally Pipped.’ The guy that took his place wound up being a second round pick. James didn’t get a great chance to play on offense as a senior, but he played very effectively in the kicking game. He was a dominant special teams player.”
“He was our captain on special teams in every game,” said rookie running back Jeremy Hill (Wright’s teammate at LSU). “He was the guy that everyone looked up to for being unselfish. He didn’t score a touchdown in his college career but he didn’t care. He still went hard every day in practice and in the games.”
“My senior year, all I did was special teams and I enjoyed it,” said Wright. “It’s one-third of football, so it gives you a chance to play.
“They gave me the captain’s role and I tried to lead by example. Every time I had a rep, I went 100% and that’s the approach I want to keep.”
Following the departure of Andrew Hawkins in free agency, Simmons is looking at Wright as a potential replacement for Hawkins as one of the team’s “gunners” in punt and kick coverage.
“He’ll have an opportunity to come in and compete to be that guy,” Simmons told me. “Anytime in this league that you can get coverage production from a receiver that’s a huge positive. Usually when you think of receivers you think of returners, but somebody has to go tackle those returners. You can’t have all defensive players on special teams; you have to get some help from offensive guys.”
“In college I did a little bit of everything,” said Wright. “I was the gunner in punt coverage, I ran down on kickoffs, I was the corner against the gunner – I did a little bit of everything.
“Whatever they ask me to do and anything that I can bring to the table, I’m going to bring it to the best of my ability and see where that takes me.”
In the battle to make the roster in a crowded group at wide receiver, Wright’s prowess at special teams could obviously help his case.
“I think the biggest job that I have with some of these young guys is getting the message across that unless you come in here as a high pick or you’re a starter, the way you get to play is by being effective in the kicking game,” said Simmons. “If you come in already knowing that because that’s what you did in college, then you’re a step ahead of everybody else.”
“I’m excited for him,” said Hill. “I think he’s going to continue to impress these coaches and impress the fans and he’s going to find a role and make this team.”
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