On Darnell Wright, and the Unexpected Growth Path of NFL Offensive Tackles

| August 8th, 2023

Today I want to talk about Darnell Wright, but before we get started I want to show you a  clip from the 2021 preseason — specifically, pay attention to the Lions’ RT #58. Watch his hands, his feet, and his overall demeanor on this snap.

That’s now-Pro-Bowler Penei Sewell, who had one of the worst preseasons in recent memory immediately after getting drafted #7 overall in the 2021 draft. In this clip, you can see that his initial footwork is off (he false-steps badly at the snap), he misses his punch, and his feet get so tangled as he tries to recover that he can’t stop his EDGE rusher from easily turning the corner and hammering his QB.

Sewell’s entire preseason was U-G-L-Y. If you believe in PFF Grades, they marked him as a 38.6 overall grade & a 27.0 pass-block grade across the preseason (remember, 60 is their replacement-level benchmark), so it wasn’t an issue of a single bad rep. Sewell clearly wasn’t comfortable at Right Tackle early and, in a cruel NFL filled with professional football players that can’t afford to miss chances at production, that discomfort led to hesitancy and that hesitancy led to defeat all too often.

What did this mean for Sewell’s rookie season? Better yet, what has this meant for his career so far? In short, absolutely nothing — with that in mind, I want to caution Bears fans against overreacting to tenth overall pick Darnell Wright’s play this weekend, especially if he doesn’t immediately look like an All-Pro.

What we learned from Noah Sewell’s brother is that the transition from college Tackle footwork to NFL-grade Tackle footwork takes time, and in Darnell Wright’s case he’s likely got plenty to work on.

Not only is he playing at a vastly different weight than he played at in school (I think he was ~350lbs during the season, but he weighed in at 342lbs at February’s Senior Bowl, then weighed in at 333lbs at March’s NFL Combine, and has now recently stated he lost another 16lbs this offseason to bring him to a lean 317lbs overall) but Tennessee’s shotgun-heavy quick-pass offense allowed Wright to short-set often & cheat with his feet as a pass-protector in ways that deeper NFL dropbacks, especially those snapped from under center, simply won’t let him do.

That means Wright has not only spent camp digesting a new rushing playbook full of complex (and beautiful) designer runs, but he’s also had to learn what he can & can’t do at his new weight while ironing out wrinkles in his pass-blocking footwork and solving whatever bad habits he picked up as a college pass protector that so often overmatched his opponents. It’s not easy to do any of those things, so now imagine trying to do them all within only a few weeks!

Imagine an OT working on widening his kick-step while also learning to stop an NFL bull-rush with an anchor that could be as many as ~35lbs lighter than he was accustomed to in school. If he widens his kick step too far, he’ll lose his anchor completely and end up on his rear end. If he doesn’t kick out far enough, a speed rusher like Yannick Ngakoue will dip around him without breaking a sweat.

There’s no such thing as half-right for an NFL OT, and unfortunately opponents don’t give the youngest OTs any grace — rushers like Rashan Gary, Shaq Barrett, and the rest of the EDGEs on the Bears’ schedule will take advantage of any crack Wright leaves in his defenses. If anything, it’s best he iron out as much as possible across the next 3 Saturdays in preparation for September 10th.

The good news for Wright is that his tools, namely his sophisticated hand-usage and natural stopping power, should lead to a wonderful career both protecting Justin Fields’ right-hand side and mauling defensive ends in the run game. Check out the reel below for some fabulous examples of my favorite trait from Wright’s Tennessee days — his arsenal of pass protection moves that include punches, grabs, counters, slams, inside recoveries, and everything in-between. It’s some of the best hand-usage in his draft class.

I really can’t wait to see Wright play this Saturday — an Offensive Tackle with his hand-fighting tools, natural power, and the movement ability he displayed at the NFL Combine sounds like a force to be reckoned with. But should he make mistakes, remember to look at Wright’s career as a process rather than using blunders on Saturday as proof of what’s to come on Sundays:

  • Former 2020 4th overall pick Andrew Thomas struggled mightily in his rookie year only to play All-Pro football for the next two years
  • Penei Sewell rebounded from a terrible preseason with a solid rookie campaign and a Pro Bowl second year
  • Evan Neal (my favorite OT in the 2022 class, RIP me) posted a problematic rookie season before changing his stance dramatically in prepping for the 2023 season
  • As well as plenty of other examples throughout NFL history

Mastering NFL Offensive Tackle takes time and the road is often bumpy, so be sure to enjoy the process as a young player attempts to become the best he can be. It’s the Wright (and only) way to do things, after all.

Your Turn: What are your expectations for Darnell Wright as a rookie?

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