Darnell Wright’s dramatic pre-draft climb began long before he stunned the NFL Scouting Combine by registering the second-best athleticism score among tackles while weighing 6-foot-5, 333 pounds.D Wright’s meteoric ascension has taken more than a year. It’s the result of his maturation, experience, and unwavering commitment to being the best version of himself imaginable. “I think it was just the constant evaluation of myself and making sure that – I wasn’t just out there free balling,” Wright said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Chicago.
“I was aware of the reasons why I would lose a rep. I have a foundation to work with. I wasn’t just going around free-balling anymore. I was really concentrating on honing my technique. “I know why I lost and how to win the next rep.” The end result? Wright had a near-perfect senior season at Tennessee, allowing only eight total pressures and not allowing a sack. According to Pro Football Focus, his 1.7 percent pressure rate allowed was third among all Division 1 tackles, after only Ohio State’s Dawand Jones and Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski.
Wright’s eye-opening season, which saw him rise from a Round 3-4 pick to a projected top-10 choice, includes shutouts against LSU and eventual national champion Georgia. In the two games, Wright had 88 pass-blocking opportunities and did not allow any pressure. Wright had 21 true pass-blocking opportunities against Georgia and pitched a perfect game. But his Mona Lisa, the game that drew the eye of evaluators, came in Week 7 against Alabama and projected top-5 pick Will Anderson.
Wright shut down the two-time Nagurski Award winner, allowing just one pressure in Tennessee’s last-second victory over Alabama. That game versus Anderson, and how easily Wright won it, illustrate Wright’s mental progress as a tackle and demonstrate how high his upside is at the next level. Things clicking in the film room were the catalyst for Wright’s elevation, according to him.
Every Sunday, the 21-year-old would arrive at the facility and sift over the tape to learn about the players’ tendencies and the scheme he’d be facing. Wright’s initial watch does not include any notes. He immerses himself in a fluid process to obtain a sense of what he’s about to encounter and how he needs to react. On the second watch, he analyzes his primary matchup for the week. It’s a laborious procedure, but Wright believes it offers him a distinct advantage over anybody he encounters.
“When I start thinking, ‘OK, who am I going up against? What exactly do they do? ‘What good does their defense do?’ “That’s just the beginning,” Wright told NBC Sports Chicago. “But I’ll take a guy, depending on who it is, but I’ll categorize him into three groups.” I’ll put him in a category based on whether he’s a speed guy, a power guy, or a finesse guy. I make an attempt to take away his A and B. I believe I can dance with anyone’s C. We can dance, you know what I mean? Me and that person’s C. And then we’ll see who the better player is.”
Anderson checks the speed and power boxes, so Wright made certain that the two would only dance against Alabama’s finesse game. Anderson hardly got a chance to breathe on Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker due to perfect planning and execution. But it’s not simply the physical dominance or thorough film work that lead to Wright’s suffocating of Anderson that’s noteworthy. It was how Wright handled a game that would have a huge impact on his draft stock and determine if Tennessee would end a 15-game losing streak to rival Alabama.
Wright was well aware of Anderson’s talent and how much depended on his ability to hold off one of the country’s greatest players. However, by Wednesday of that week, Wright realized he had the upper hand. “I was a little scared at first,” Wright admitted. “You hear about the player, how good they are, and so on. But as you game plan and start breaking them down, you see they are just like any other player; they have flaws and stuff you can exploit, and my confidence just keeps growing and growing and growing. When we go to the game, I just know I’ll be more prepared and better than the player I’ll be facing.”
That game launched a straight-up draft ascent to the top. Wright entered the season with doubts about his athleticism for his size, but after dominating the Senior Bowl and putting on a display at the combine, the Tennessee tackle was firmly in the running to be one of the first tackles selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. Wright made 17 pre-draft visits and had Zoom interviews with a number of other clubs. He’s on the radar of practically every team, including the Bears, who visited Wright for a top-30 visit and have a huge need at tackle.
The reason for the visit to Halas Hall has nothing to do with scheme fit or positional choice. The Bears hosted Wright and centered their questions on his personality. What are his interests? How does he unwind after football? What motivates him? The top-30 visits represent the ultimate stage of intelligence collecting. They’ve seen the tape and worked out with the guy, but they want to spend additional time with him to establish culture fit. Wright, who was always at ease in his own skin, aced his Halas Hall exam.
“You walk into the GM’s office, and they want to really ask you some questions, get to know you, and dig a little bit to see what you’re about,” Wright told NBC Sports Chicago. “I remember going in there and it was good; [general manager Ryan Poles] asked me some questions and dug a little.” I just knew – I believe they were impressed because I was able to be myself. I have nothing to conceal. I don’t have to sit there trying to be the perfect person or saying the correct things to seem like the perfect person. I could simply be myself. That was respected by them.”
Wright’s pre-draft visit to Chicago was highlighted by an instant relationship with offensive line coach Chris Morgan, which saw the two bond over on- and off-field matters. “I talked to coach C-Mo for a long time,” Wright explained. “It was funny because he was asking me what my personal peeves were. It’s amusing since his No. 1 pet peeve and my No. 1 pet peeve are the same thing. So, if I wind up with the Bears, it’ll be a pleasure to work with him.”
The pet peeves are all about complacency. “He said I want players who have talent and don’t just get by,” Wright explained. “He explained, ‘you’ve done well up to this point, but you’ve got so much more in you.'” My pet peeve is when I feel like I can do something and I’ll develop that foundation with the team – you know, you have to establish that trust before you can do anything extra – I told him how once that is established, I want to test some things and see what works best for me.
“‘I’m going to make sure you get the foundation first,’ he said.” We have some things to work out, and if that’s all we have to work out, I think we’ll be fine. He’s an excellent coach.” Poles, Bears head coach Matt Eberflus, and their staff are looking for talent in the 2023 draft. They must inject as much of it as possible into a team that is still in the early phases of rebuilding. They also desire scheme and culture compatibility. The Bears have prioritized finding guys who live, breathe, and eat football. Those who refuse to leave until the tank is empty past E.
Wright’s Tennessee teammate was wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. He’s already given the offensive tackle a crash lesson in the Halas Hall H.I.T.S (hustle, intensity, takeaways, smart football) principle. If given the opportunity, Wright is willing to totally embrace it. “The main thing he was saying is that there will be a lot expected of you, but embrace it because if there isn’t a lot expected of you, they probably don’t think you’re deserving,” Wright explained. “Didn’t Spider-Man say something?” Great power comes with great responsibility. That’s exactly what he was getting at.”