Of the Tennessee football players who have announced early entries into the NFL Draft so far, none will have a greater impact than Darnell Wright. The right tackle has been a staple of the offensive line for four years.
Wright is the only player on this team who was a unanimous five-star coming out of high school and has started for at least a portion of every year in 2019. Fellow lineman Cooper Mays defended his decision to enter the draft.
“In a normal college football circumstance, this would have been his final year anyway, so I think it’s time for him to move on,” he said. “I think he’s got a great opportunity ahead of him at the Senior Bowl, and I think he’s got a lot of opportunities to prove himself as a guy that can sneak into the first round.”
There were articles at the beginning of the season about Wright potentially being a first-round pick. The most likely projection is probably the third round.
Mays, though, is emphasizing the offseason draft preparations that will help Wright gain more attention. Wright is playing in the Orange Bowl against the Clemson Tigers and also received a Senior Bowl invite.
“I think he’s going go to the Senior Bowl and have a really good week, and I think he’s going to climb the ranks a little bit, and then I think he’s going to the combine and do really well there,” he said.
A huge selling point for Wright has been his versatility. He started at right tackle all of this year but played left tackle for Tennessee football in 2021.
Before that, Wright was a right tackle in a completely different offense. Mays, however, said that despite the versatility, he is most natural at right tackle.
“I think people underestimate how hard it is to switch sides like that,” he said. I think it’s probably better to keep him on one side.”
This isn’t to say Wright can’t play left tackle, according to Mays. Being able to play both sides could play somewhat of a role in improving his draft stock.
Standing at 6’6″ 335 pounds, Wright’s size and athleticism will be major advantages to NFL scouts. His production will also help his case.
“He’s a freak athlete and just great with his body, so it wouldn’t be something that he couldn’t do, but if you look at his body of work that he’s put together this year against the rushers that he’s been against, there’s no reason why I think you shouldn’t just let him be where he’s comfortable right now and just let him eat,” Mays said.
That production includes allowing 0 sacks on the year. Most notably, Wright contained Alabama Crimson Tide edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. as Tennessee football beat them 52-49 in October.
As far as where he should go, Mays suggested that the needs of NFL teams should be immune to whether or not they draft him. Wright, according to him, is that good.
“I think all teams in the NFL need to draft him, personally,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter. There’s a couple, I’m sure, that probably don’t need a right tackle, but, it never can hurt to have somebody that is that good and can move that well at that size.”
Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt are entering the NFL Draft too but are opting out of the bowl game. Just as he defended opt-outs last week in an interview, Mays defended them specificall. Jacob Warren also defended them in a separate interview.
As far as the offensive line goes, Tennessee football now has at least two players to replace for next year. Wright is gone, and Jerome Carvin is out of eligibility.
That puts a lot of pressure on Josh Heupel and Glen Elarbee. They could use the transfer portal, but they have lots of young players. Mays said he is trying to bring all of the younger talent along because they need all the help they can get.
“In any year, you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Last year, we went through probably three, four interior linemen within a season, so you’ve really got to bring everybody along. There’s a lot of guys that will probably need to step up next year.”