Carolina Panthers receiver Jarius Wright can recall the exact night he first stuck somebody.
Wright was a four-sport star athlete at Warren High School in Arkansas. But baseball, basketball and track and field never gave him the thrill he felt as a defensive back when he wrapped up a receiver.
“It was 10th grade, and I was actually playing defense at this time,” he said. “He had an out-route, it was cover-2, and I just sat out there and waited for him. It was my first big hit. It felt pretty good, so I can understand why guys want to play defense. They can get a chance to tee off on people every now and then.”
After he switched to receiver, Wright missed the physicality.
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And to be honest, he was also a little ticked that people always underestimated him because of his 5-foot-10 and 190-pound stature.
So he brought a little backbone into his game.
And now, he’s one of a few Panthers players who on Thursday night against Buffalo showed their tenacity while picking up yards after the catch (YAC).
With 3:04 left in the first quarter, Wright, lined up wide, created instant separation between himself and his coverage. Quarterback Cam Newton found the window with a 10-yard pass.
“He came up, he pressed me and I had a go-route,” said Wright. “Cam (Newton) made a great throw, back shoulder. And I just made the adjustment to the ball.”
Wright then shed a defender for a pickup of 18 more yards after the catch and was brought down at the 2-yard line. The play set up a touchdown by running back Christian McCaffrey.
As the Panthers’ offense becomes more efficient, putting playmakers around Newton who can create those extra yards has been key.
Last season, running back Christian McCaffrey had 586 yards after the catch, and receiver Devin Funchess had 284, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Both led the rest of the team by a wide margin.
Carolina wants more.
So the Panthers drafted receiver D.J. Moore in the first round, citing his ability to run after the catch “like a running back.”
Moore showed plenty of that ability Thursday night, leading the Panthers with four catches for 75 yards, with a 32-yard long. Twenty-seven of his total yards were after the catch.
New offensive coordinator Norv Turner also utilized McCaffrey well on Thursday night, getting him into one-on-one matchups and putting him in position to create space and extra yards as a receiver.
“We had guys that run well with the ball in their hands,” head coach Ron Rivera said after Thursday’s 28-23 victory. “And that’s one thing that we need to be able to do — get the ball in these playmakers’ hands and let them make plays.”
Was Wright’s ability to do so perhaps was a little bit of a surprise?
Not according to Wright, who has the words “Hard Wright” tattooed on his shoulder.
“I’ve always been able to have a lot of YAC. ... I’m a country boy, so I’m kind of tough already,” he said. “You can’t let size judge you, or let anyone tell you you’re too small. That’s what I was told my whole life, but they don’t measure your heart. And like I said, I’m a tough guy.
“And you know what? Sometimes I am underrated because I am a smaller guy. But I can play with the best. ... And I’m a smart guy, so I know where to be.”
Wright, 28, was signed in free agency, from the Vikings, this spring. But over the last several days of training camp, he has appeared to shift into a higher gear of chemistry with Newton. He was Newton’s favorite target alongside tight end Greg Olsen in the days leading up to the preseason opener.
“This has been one of my best camps that I’ve had in the NFL,” Wright said. “Getting a chance to play with these great guys, getting a chance to join this great receiving corps, we just push each other each and every day. I think it’s showing up on the field and off the field.”
In Minnesota, where he was drafted in 2012 and spent the first six years of his career, Wright’s nickname was “Mr. Third Down” because of his clutch ability in that situation.
Forty-one percent of Wright’s 153 career catches have been on third down, for 955 yards (about 46 percent of his career total 2,039 yards). He also averaged 14.7 yards per third-down catch, his highest average by down, with a 74 percent catch rate.
But it’s likely the Panthers will look to get Wright the ball and into space much more often than just on third down.
Naturally, he wants to run with that.
“I’m working on opening it up, being more of an every-down guy,” he grinned. “I was just a third-down guy (in Minnesota). But I’m working on being an every-down guy now.”