SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Statistically speaking, you could say that the Vikings threw the ball to Jarius Wright last season only when they needed him.
Wright was always there when needed, but now he’s somewhere where he feels wanted.
“I was definitely, definitely underutilized there for what I did when I was on the field,” Wright said of his final chapters in Minnesota. “I kind of went unnoticed with those guys.
“I’m happy to be here, happy to get a fresh start. I think they’re using me the right way here.”
When the Panthers visited the Vikings on a bitterly cold November day in 2014, Wright was well on his way to a career year in which the 2012 fourth-round draft pick caught 42 balls for 588 yards, mostly out of the slot position where he best fits. In that Vikings victory, an unknown second-year player named Adam Thielen scored his first career touchdown – by returning a punt he had blocked.
Wright was pretty productive in 2015 as well with 34 catches while Thielen caught just a dozen balls. But over the last two seasons, while Stefon Diggs continued to develop, Thielen racked up 160 catches for 2,243 yards. Wright totaled 29 catches for 265 yards.
Wright was still appreciated by many for what he did, but he didn’t get that many chances to do his thing. Of his 18 regular season receptions last year, 13 resulted in first downs – including eight third-down conversions. He was more involved in a pair of playoff games, catching six balls for 107 yards.
He hasn’t yet officially made a catch in a Panthers uniform, but he’s the wide receivers room’s unofficial receptions leader so far in training camp.
“It’s always good to get a chance to show people,” said Wright, who elicits responses like this from Vikings fans when he makes a play at Panthers camp:
“That’s why I’m happy to be here; they’re giving me a chance to show what I can do," Wright continued. "Me personally, I think I’m having one of my best camps. I’ve done some really nice things, have run really good routes. Just getting on the same page with Cam, it’s been fun.”
The Panthers’ magical season of 2015 featured a player in the slot that didn’t have big numbers but had a knack. That year, Jerricho Cotchery caught 39 passes, and 26 of them - two-thirds - produced first downs.
That’s strikingly similar to Wright’s career pace: Of his 153 career receptions, 101 have gone for first downs. Of those first-down grabs, nearly half (44) came on third downs.
“He just has a great feel for the game,” said Cotchery, in his second season as Carolina’s assistant wide receivers coach. “It’s very big to have a guy who understands situational football and comes through on third down and in two-minute situations. He is that guy. He understands how to play the position.”
Two other folks roaming the halls of Wofford College know Wright’s game rather well.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn played with Wright in Minnesota for three seasons, but Munnerlyn goes back much further than that with the player he often matches up against in practice.
“I played him his freshman year at Arkansas when I was at South Carolina, and I was like, ‘Man, this guy is gonna be good,’ ” Munnerlyn recalled. “I think he’s got a little Captain in him. He got a little dog in him. I call him Mr. Reliable. On third-and-12, he’s a guy you can depend on catching the ball.
“They been sleeping on J-Wright for a while.”
First-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner doesn’t play favorites, as was the case with him and Wright with the Vikings. Turner was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator for Wright’s best two years in 2014 and ’15, but he also was in that role for the first half of the 2016 season when Wright was barely a factor.
So Turner knows Wright’s floor and ceiling, but he also knows that Wright is a player always ready to be right in the middle of things.
“When you’ve got three guys, you create matchups. He is a matchup problem,” Turner said. “You move him around, and he’s got great quickness along with his speed. He’s been effective beating man coverage, and he understands how we attack zone defenses.”
Wright is excited about again being a part of Turner’s offense, and he proudly and quickly reels off the long list of weapons that will be at Newton’s disposal. He names seven players before naming himself, calling himself a potential “safety blanket” for Newton.
You know Wright hopes to be higher in the pecking order than that, but he has learned to make himself available, then make the most of what that brings his way.
“I was blessed to be able to do this and do this at a high level so at the end of day, I just want to go out and make my teammates happy – play hard for them, play good for them,” Wright said. “It has nothing to showing anybody they’re wrong; I just want to go out and play football and play at a high level.
“Eventually though, if you keep doing the right stuff, God will reward you. I truly believe that.”