TAMPA, Fla. -- Ronde Barber says ex-teammate Eric Wright is a “greedy” player. In the context of NFL cornerbacks, that’s a compliment.
“Absolutely it is,” said Barber, the longtime Buccaneers cornerback who will call today’s game between his former squad and the 49ers.
“To play this game, you have to be just a bit selfish,” he said. “You obviously play within the scheme and do what’s right for the team, but in order to be what the general public considers a playmaker, you have to be a bit greedy.”
Barber played 16 seasons in the NFL, including last year with Wright in Tampa Bay. He said he got a good sense of Wright’s physical gifts but says he never got to know him very well off the field.
That’s because Wright’s stint with the Buccaneers was short and full of turmoil.
He was suspended for four games last season after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. He also had two DUI arrests in Los Angeles – one in 2012 and another this past July. The case from last year was dismissed; the local district attorney still is deciding whether to file charges in the second.
The Buccaneers tired of the distractions and first traded Wright to San Francisco in July. When Wright failed a physical that voided the deal, Tampa Bay cut the cornerback outright, despite initially signing him to a five-year, $37.5 million contract the year before.
“When he was available to us, he was really good,” Barber said. “But the best kind of ability is availability.”
The 49ers ended up signing Wright in August, and he spent the first month with his new team dealing with his personal issues.
At the time, coach Jim Harbaugh said he and the 49ers hoped that Wright’s saga would turn into a “great story.”
Asked last week how that story is progressing, Harbaugh said, “Very well. I feel good for him and feel good to be a part of it in a small way. But he’s done the heavy lifting. No question about it.”
The 49ers elevated Wright to the 53-man roster last month. When starting cornerback Tarell Brown suffered a serious rib injury on Nov. 17, Wright became the team’s nickel cornerback.
He has averaged 26 snaps in the last three games, all wins for the 49ers, and last week he came down with a game-sealing interception against the Seahawks.
All of which suggests Wright, who grew up in San Francisco, could have a big role in the 49ers’ secondary next year. Like Brown, he is scheduled to be a free agent in March. Unlike Brown, however, his troubled past likely means he’ll have fewer suitors. He also promises to be more affordable than the 49ers’ other starter at cornerback, Carlos Rogers.
“He has been getting better and better, which is what you would expect with more practice time and more playing time,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He’s been improving, and we have high hopes for him the rest of the season and in the future.”
Wright, 28, has 15 interceptions over a seven-year career that also has included stops in Cleveland and Detroit.
Barber, who retired with 47 career interceptions, thinks there are plenty more on the way for Wright.
“He had probably the most fascinating interception for a touchdown return I’ve ever seen in my life against New York (Giants) in Week 2 last year,” he said. “It was probably a five-foot throw he intercepted from Eli (Manning). He made, like, 13 guys miss – he made some guys miss twice – and ran in for a touchdown. He has that kind of physical talent.”
Barber said Wright’s quickness and his ability “to move in short space” was as impressive as any cornerback’s in the league. And that’s what gives him license to be a bit greedy when the ball is in the air.
“It lends itself to taking some chances sometimes,” Barber said. “But that’s what you get in this day and age. When the ball’s in the air 45 times a game, you’re going to get your chances. You might as well take some shots.”
Read Matthew Barrows’ blogs at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.