The NFL

May 13, 2007

Roll of the Dice

Amid an NFL crackdown on player misconduct, the Browns are gambling on a cornerback with a troubled past

WHAT HAPPENS when a team's desperation, the importance of the cornerback position, the NFL's toughened personal-conduct policy, 136 Ecstasy tablets and a man who guarded three U.S. presidents all collide? Cleveland's second-round pick in the draft—that's what.

A key member of the Browns brain trust in the run-up to the draft was chief administrative officer Lew Merletti, who compiled dossiers on eight prospects with risky backgrounds. Merletti had the right credentials—before being hired by the Browns in 1999, he spent 25 years with the Secret Service, the last two as its director—and he personally interviewed the one player the Browns desperately hoped would pass muster: UNLV cornerback Eric Wright.

An immensely talented freshman at USC in 2004, Wright was arrested in March of '05 on suspicion of sexual assault; police also found 136 Ecstasy pills in the apartment he shared with a roommate. No criminal charges were filed, but Wright left USC for a new start at UNLV. There he was trouble-free while sitting out the 2005 season and enduring an injury-marred '06.

Despite starting just 10 college games, Wright was considered a first-round talent by many teams, thanks largely to his speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and fluidity. One club rated him the best corner in the draft but took him off its board because of the '05 incident. Detroit removed him too. "With us," says Lions president Matt Millen, "it was the Ecstasy that was the worst thing."

Cleveland's defense ranked 27th in the NFL in '06, and its secondary has taken a beating, particularly against pass-happy division rival Cincinnati, which averaged 34.4 points a game in five straight wins over the Browns. "The other corners we considered were either short or slow," says G.M. Phil Savage. "We had to have someone come in and help our secondary. Cincinnati was running roughshod over us."

Savage is confident the Browns did their homework on Wright. "Lew does a lot of interviews," he says. "Not coaches or trainers, but childhood friends, high school teachers, counselors. We learned his life story. And in the end we decided this was one regrettable incident for a 19-year-old kid. He was clean his whole life before that, and then he went to Las Vegas, where you can get in trouble in five minutes, and had two clean years. I asked Lew what he thought, and he said, 'I think he's pretty good.'"

Wright visited the Browns before the draft and was grilled by Merletti. "I hope the public knows he looked into me and found out I was O.K.," Wright says. "Two years ago I knew I had to do something to restore people's faith in me. I strategically planned to put myself in a difficult environment and be a model citizen. So I went to Sin City, and my true character showed. No trouble. Worked hard at football. Came back early from a meniscus tear last season. Got a 2.9 GPA. I knew there were some teams that wouldn't draft me, but I was just looking for one team that would."

After getting the O.K. from owner Randy Lerner, Savage swung a deal with Dallas to take Wright with the 53rd choice. Savage then looked over at Merletti in the draft room. "He's going to be fine," Merletti reassured him.

He'd better be. Amid growing concern over the conduct of NFL players, commissioner Roger Goodell has told clubs they're now subject to sanction if they draft a problem player and he continues to have legal troubles as a pro. If Wright fails to live cleanly in Cleveland, he might not just be a waste of a second-round pick—he might cost the Browns a hefty fine or even a future draft choice.

"The Browns don't have to worry about me," Wright says. "The incident put a scar on my character, but hopefully after I play here 10 years, if I do, they'll think they made a good choice."

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Four for the Show

This quartet of out-of-the-spotlight rookies could make a big impact in September.

H.B. Blades (right), LB, Redskins (sixth round, Pitt)
Son of former NFLer Bennie Blades should earn a nickel linebacker job early and challenge for more playing time by midseason.

Brandon Jackson, RB, Packers (second round, Nebraska)
At 5'10", 210 pounds, has same body type as Ahman Green and averaged 4.9 yards per rush as a Husker. Got the majority of reps at rookie practice last Friday and Saturday and has shot at starting.

Quentin Moses, DE, Raiders (third round, Georgia)
Lithe edge rusher will see single blocking on the right, with respected rusher Derrick Burgess on the other side. Could easily win starting job.

Greg Peterson, DT, Tampa Bay (fifth round, N.C. Central)
Quickness in rookie camp suggests he could be pass rusher in Warren Sapp mold.

PHOTOTOM CAMMETT/WIREIMAGE.COM (WRIGHT)SCRUTINIZED The Browns did a lengthy background check on Wright. PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTON/GETTY IMAGES (BLADES)

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