There may be no bigger steal of the 2016 NFL draft class than linebacker Philip Wright (a.k.a. "Scooby") the Cleveland Browns’ seventh-round and final pick of this year’s event. Had it not been for an injury-marred 2015 season that limited Wright to just three games played, he would have easily been in the Rounds 1 and 2 conversation; instead, he was projected to be a fifth- or sixth-round pick. That the Browns got him in the seventh does not mean Wright is the biggest long-shot of their rookies to make the 53-man roster.
Wright won numerous awards for his breakout sophomore season in 2014, including being named the Pac-12’s Player of the Year. Of his 270 career collegiate tackles, he racked up 164 of them that season, as well as 31 of his 43.5 tackles for a loss and 15 of his 17 sacks. In 2015, he missed all but three games to a torn meniscus in his left knee and a sprained right foot, but he did return triumphantly in Arizona’s New Mexico Bowl appearance, with 15 of his 23 tackles earned in the game, as well as 3.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks.
A talented run-stopper and pass-rusher, if Wright is healthy and can perform as he did in 2014, he can provide the Browns with two aspects of the defense the team has sorely needed. There are also a few areas in his technique that will also require refining. And the nature of the depth chart at interior linebacker in Cleveland could also limit how often he is used as a rookie. At the very least, though, Wright should find a home as a situational, rotational piece in Cleveland’s defensive front in 2016.
The free agency signing of inside linebacker DeMario Davis to a two-year, $8 million contract that has a $3.2 million cap hit for this season is a sign that he can be penciled in as a starter. Cleveland has also gotten a good amount of production out of 2014 Round 3 pick Christian Kirksey, who was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd-ranked overall linebacker (among both inside and outside backers) in 2015. The Browns also added another interior linebacker in free agency this year in Justin Tuggle. While he has just a $700,000 cap hit and zero dead money, he was clearly sought out by the new regime and at least for now has some role to play in the defense.
That makes Tank Carder the potential odd man out depending on how many interior linebackers the Browns choose to keep on the main roster this year and how they choose to use them. Carder has a $1.1 million cap hit—or the second-highest among their inside linebackers this year—but just $300,000 in dead money if he’s released. Carder saw his most playing time in Week 5 last year, with 42 total snaps, but never saw more than 16 in a game for the remainder of the year. Carder’s upside is as a depth linebacker with plus special-teams skills; if Wright can prove to be even more of an asset in both areas this summer, Carder’s time in Cleveland could be up.
Wright’s ceiling is very high, as evidenced by his performance in 2014. Though his injury history is concerning, and what led to his draft slide all the way to Round 7, if he can return to his previous form the Browns have gotten themselves a player who can make a big impact quickly and eventually turn into a full-time starter. Aside from Carder, the rest of Cleveland’s inside linebackers shouldn’t worry about their job securities by Wright’s presence just yet. In 2017, the case could be quite different. Though typically seventh-round picks have their backs against the walls when it comes to making a 53-man roster, Wright is not the typical seventh-round player.