CINCINNATI -- It's been nearly two years since James Wright caught a pass in a game.
Despite that rather ominous fact, the Cincinnati Bengals used one of their two seventh-round picks on him in May's draft, selecting the little-used former LSU wideout and special teamer.
There are still some scratching their heads over the move.
Those who call Paul Brown Stadium their place of employment couldn't care less. They believe that Wright could have a real impact in their offense, even if it's been a while since he directly contributed to someone else's. When training camp opens next week and the battle for spots on the 53-man roster begins in earnest, Wright could be one to watch.
"I know he's going to make this football team better," Bengals receivers coach James Urban said.
Urban could tell pretty early in the evaluation process that Wright could be a valued contributor on the Bengals' special teams. After all, Wright won LSU's "Wild Tiger" trophy last season for having the team's highest number of special teams production points that included his 12 special teams tackles as part of their coverage teams. He also had a pair of fumble recoveries, including a key takeaway that helped set up an LSU field goal in the Tigers' win over TCU.
Now the goal is get Wright to play offensively the way he did on special teams. Urban believes the rookie can do that and challenged him to do as much the day he arrived in Cincinnati following his draft selection.
"That day I talked to him and said, 'Look, I know what you can do on special teams, now you've got to play wide receiver,'" Urban said. "He's embraced it, he's worked his tail off and he's given us [a lot]. I mean, he's a very intense young man. He wants to prove this organization and [team president] Mr. [Mike] Brown right in selecting him."
During the minicamp and voluntary organized team activities the Bengals had this spring, Wright made his presence known. At least one reporter had a hard time ignoring Wright after he repeatedly chased down deep passes from all four Bengals quarterbacks. It was quite common to hear, on those days when media members were allowed to watch practices, compliments directed toward Wright from Urban and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson after various drills.
"We'll see once we get the pads on, but it's been encouraging," Urban said.
Wright got on Cincinnati's radar after Urban and other Bengals coaches heard their colleagues at LSU speak highly of the receiver. Much like Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis, Urban has his own connections with LSU coaches that extends beyond the Xs and Os. Those relationships not only helped Wright get drafted by the Bengals, but they also aided in running back Jeremy Hill's second-round selection.
Part of the reason Wright went without a catch last season stems from the Tigers' receiver-deplete system. LSU seldom trotted out three- and four-receiver sets. It instead focused on running the ball and splitting receptions among the top two receivers and the top running back, Hill. As LSU's third-leading receiver, Hill caught 18 passes for 181 yards. Wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham had 77 and 59 receptions apiece. Primarily because of the scheme, Wright didn't field a pass, even though he had done so 18 times through his first three seasons. The last pass he caught in a game came Nov. 17, 2012, in a win over Mississippi.
Only once did the Tigers lose a game that saw Wright catch a pass.
In addition to his special teams abilities, Wright became known at LSU for being a good blocker in pass scenarios. For a Bengals offense that is expected to rely in part on screen passes that can be turned into big gains, having another receiver who already knows how to block downfield would be an ideal addition. The only problem is that the Bengals couldn't just trot him onto the field to block. Opposing defenses would figure that out quickly and have an idea that a play needing a big block downfield could be coming.
So to avoid tipping that, Cincinnati certainly would want to use Wright as a receiver.
Regardless of the roles Wright would be asked to fulfill if he makes the team, Urban doesn't think the young player will have any problem accepting what's asked of him.
"When Mr. Brown asked me, I said, 'That's the kind of guy we want,'" Urban said. "I know he's going to make this football team better. He's a team player. He's proven that. You can't question that. Now, is he good enough for wide receiver? We'll find out."