- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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As he stood around the dozens of NFL scouts and coaches, Manuel Wright found himself being criticized for doing what he thought was the right thing. It's the story of his young football life.
During his first 40-yard dash at a workout for scouts in Los Angeles Friday, the former USC defensive tackle tweaked a hamstring. Knowing he would be criticized if he didn't finish the workout, Wright gutted it out. His next 40 time accomplished his goal of the "Wow" factor. Weighing 329 pounds, the 6-foot-5 Wright ran a 4.97. He ran a third 40 to show he was a player.
Then came the next set of drills and the disappointments. His shuttle times were terrible. Those watching wondered whether he had even trained on the shuttle run. He then bench pressed 225 pounds just 16 times, less than expectations. Instead of getting the "Wow" Wright was hoping for, the response was more of a reflective "Hmm."
Wright didn't want to do the wrong thing and end his workout when he tweaked his hamstring.
"Despite the hamstring, I wanted to finish," Wright said. "That's the way it's supposed to be in the NFL. You have to be ready to play out the whole game."
But it shouldn't be much of a surprise that Wright, the top player available in Thursday's supplemental draft, drew mixed reactions. He's always been an enigma. Scouts and draftniks had targeted Wright as one of the next great defensive tackles -- for the 2007 draft. Had he stayed at USC for two more years, Wright could have been a top-10 selection.
But because he didn't want to risk losing college eligibility if he fell behind in the classroom this spring, Wright applied for the supplemental draft. Instead of excitement, Wright drew questions.
One knock was maturity. Of course, he was leaving school two years early, at the age of 22. He was in the middle of his college experience. The other knock was his playing time, which was only about 20 percent of the snaps last year. But considering he played behind Mike Patterson, a first-round choice of the Eagles, and Shaun Cody, a second-round choice of the Lions, playing time was precious on one of college's deepest rosters.
The NFL is the right place for Wright. It's just happening at the wrong time. Sure, there is an outside chance a team in desperate need of a defensive tackle could take him in the first or second round of the supplemental draft (any team that drafts a player in the supplemental draft forfeits its corresponding round pick in the 2006 draft). But it seems more likely he will go in the third or fourth.
"That's all right, all I will have to do is prove teams wrong," Wright said. "That's the way it's been my whole life as a player. In high school, I was the biggest kid, but early, I didn't get to play. Early in my freshman year in college, they didn't play me and had me on the fourth team. Once they play me is when Manny Wright proves people wrong."
Wright has rare ability for a defensive tackle. It's his "Wow" factor. Wright has that incredible first step that a defensive tackle needs in the NFL. Whether he's 290 or 329 pounds, Wright can take that first step and blast past a blocker before he's set up. Few pro tackles have that gift. Wright has it.
The "Wow" factor, though, can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing is the ability that makes him a top prospect. The curse is that teams know he has that ability and wonder why it hasn't produced consistent results.
Defensive tackles may go 20 or 30 plays without a tackle. But with one quick step and a fast rush, a defensive tackle can turn a subpar game into a highlight tape. Wright can make that one spectacular tackle. But he knows he needs to do it more consistently. If he can find a way to do that three or four times in a game, he's a star.
"Manny is really a mystery," said Mississippi coach Ed Orgeron, Wright's former defensive coach at USC. "In the pros, you don't know if you are getting an All-Pro or not. He can be an All-Pro. He could also not make it. I think he needed two more years in school because he would have been one of the most dominating defensive linemen in football. Now, it's kinda scary. A team is really rolling the dice."
Orgeron gave Wright tough love at USC. He had no problems with Wright as a person. Their battles were more over his weight and work ethic. Wright's weight could fluctuate between 290 and 320 pounds, numbers that didn't mean much to him because he had that great first step.
"I played at 325 pounds last season," Wright said. "It's not a big deal. Football is a heavy man's game. But as the season goes on, my weight came down."
"[When] I saw at his workout he was 329," Orgeron said. "That's too big for him. When he was at 287 or 290 pounds, he was really quick. I remember when he came in at 327, he was fat and out of shape. He's not a bad kid. He's not a mean kid. Sometimes, his attitude is very, very immature. His success in the NFL will depend on his support system. If he has a good support system, he will do well, but he will need that."
No one questions the talent. Orgeron speaks very highly of Wright's raw skills. He compares Wright to former Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy.
"Even though Wright is 6-5, he plays low to the ground like Cortez," Orgeron said. "He's powerful and quick. Like Cortez, he has great upper body strength. He has that great first step like Cortez. He's quick off the ball. He has a tremendous club with his hands. He's very savvy."
But he's far from being a finished product. An underclassman in the pros and in college, Wright is still learning.
"I learned from the workout last week that I need to be more consistent," Wright said. "I think most of the guys there were looking for me to wow them. I thought I did that a little with the one 40. Then I hurt my hamstring, but I wanted to finish and I was able to finish the whole workout."
Wright said he would be satisfied if he goes in the first three rounds. The fourth round, though, would be a disappointment.
"I think the scouts who were there were looking for a defensive lineman who is a great athlete, one who can move with the linebackers," Wright said. "I think they expected a great workout."
If he doesn't go in the first three rounds, though, Wright understands.
"I will just have to prove people wrong again," Wright said.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Manuel Wright has the talent to play in the NFL. But does he have the work ethic to turn that talent into a long NFL career?