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Sophomore standards: What the Cowboys can expect from Nahshon Wright in 2022

Can the raw cornerback crack the starting lineup?

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When the Cowboys drafted Kelvin Joseph in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, most assumed they’d be settled at the position. It was a surprise when they took another cornerback one round later. The player they actually selected was even more of a surprise: Oregon State’s Nahshon Wright.

Most fans had never heard Wright’s name, and the draft experts almost universally had him pegged as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect. But Wright measured in at 6’4” and picked off five passes in 16 games for the Beavers, making him a prototype for what defensive coordinator Dan Quinn sought in his cornerbacks.

Much like his fellow rookie Joseph, Wright didn’t see much action in his rookie year due to strong seasons from veterans Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis, but that doesn’t mean Wright can’t take a step forward in 2022. Here’s what should be expected of the massive defender.

What He’s Done

It didn’t take long last offseason for Wright to turn many of his skeptics into fans. Wright consistently made wow plays, whether it was in training camp or the preseason, and some began to debate whether or not Wright was the better rookie corner in Dallas.

It ultimately didn’t matter, because Brown and Lewis both locked down starting spots on the outside and in the slot, respectively, and never looked back. As such, Wright slotted into a special teams role pretty early on. The positive here, though, is that Wright thrived so much in that role that he quickly became one of John Fassel’s most trusted special teamers. Wright finished the year with the fourth-most special teams snaps on the team behind aces C.J. Goodwin and Luke Gifford, as well as veteran Corey Clement.

The biggest moment in Wright’s rookie year came when the cornerback recovered a blocked punt in the endzone for a touchdown during a beatdown of the Falcons:

Wright did log one start on defense, though, and it came in the regular-season finale when Dallas rested most of their starters. In that game, Wright played on every defensive snap and looked solid. He was targeted eight times and only allowed four catches for 65 yards.

Wright returned to his special teams role in the playoffs, but the small sample size of live game action - between the preseason and the regular-season finale - showed a rookie that played much better than the initial reactions to his drafting.

What He Can Do

Entering 2022, Wright is in a very similar situation to Joseph, minus the off-field stuff. Both Brown and Lewis return and neither is expected to be cast aside to the bench, unless Wright or Joseph can steal their jobs. But from a contract perspective, Brown is in the final year of his contract, while Lewis’ current deal has an out after this season.

The Cowboys clearly liked Wright enough to draft him well before most pundits thought he’d be taken (sound familiar?), so if Wright can show Quinn and company enough then it would be very much in the team’s best interests to give him the nod over, say, Brown. But he’ll need to show them enough in the first place.

Last year, Wright showed the coaches plenty, and it led to them being comfortable enough to essentially make him a starter on special teams. That may not sound like much, but when Bones Fassel is your special teams coordinator it’s a big deal as a rookie. In the end, though, the Cowboys just didn’t feel comfortable trotting a rookie out as a starter at cornerback last year, especially after how terrible the 2020 defense had been. But now, Wright has a year’s worth of experience, both as an NFL player and working within Quinn’s scheme (for which Wright is a natural fit).

There are two areas where Wright will need to make the biggest strides. First is his frame; coming out of college, Wright measured at just 183 pounds. That’s already pretty light for a defensive back, but it’s accentuated by the fact that Wright is as tall as he is. With so much action on special teams, the physicality didn’t seem to be an issue for Wright’s slender frame, but it’s a different task when going against receivers and tight ends regularly. Wright needs to bulk up without losing the closing speed that makes him so dangerous in coverage.

Another factor for Wright is that he really only has one avenue to playing time on defense. Whereas Joseph has shown the flexibility to play in the slot, Wright is pretty much exclusively an outside corner. Since Trevon Diggs is pretty safe as one of the two starting outside corners, that means Wright needs to unseat Brown. Not only that, but Wright needs to fend off Joseph, who will be competing for Brown’s job in addition to Lewis’ job.

That won’t make things easy for Wright, which is the way these coaches want it. Competition breeds success, as they say. Last year, Wright impressed in the few chances he got on defense, which bodes well for his projected development. But he won’t be able to expand on those flashes without first locking up a starting role. Otherwise, expect another prominent role on special teams for Wright, which isn’t a terrible consolation prize.