The Colts defense ranked 24th overall, 15 against the pass and 29th against the run. This compared to the Raiders who ranked 29th overall, 27th against the pass and 27th against the run. So now the Raiders are looking to replace departed SAM backer Kam Wimbley and we have chosen Philip Wheeler as that player.
My first blush assessment of Wheeler is that he's nearly the antithesis of Wimbley and although he's listed at 240lbs, he has the look of a 220 lbs safety that bulked up 10lbs. He plays light and nimble and is more fluid in space and certainly LOOKS better in pass coverage (whether or not he's any more effective is yet to be determined, though).
A few things to note:
Look light on his feet, both as a plus and minus. His lateral movement and change of direction is great and he shows very good football speed. But it doesn't take much to redirect him, especially when he's crossing thru traffic. He's often easily blocked, though he also shows flashes of rejecting a block or playing thru it to make a play.
There is often ALOT of traffic. Why is that? Why are there so many bodies and so many offensive blockers out in space? The obvious answer is that the Colts 1st level is not protecting the linebackers at all. That makes things difficult for everyone.
The defensive scheme also seems to be focused on letting MLB Angerer and SS Bethea make the lion's share of the plays in the running game with the other players' main responsibiities being to take on blocks and funnel the runner to those players. At times you can see Wheeler looking solely to play to a leverage or to take on a block instead of trying to make a play. This looks like him playing his responsibility correctly, though watching it, you can be a bit frustrated, wanting to see him go attack the ball. There are also a few times when you can see Wheeler playing his gap and ready to make a play and instead Angerer cuts him off and tackle the ballcarrier. Effective (but curious).
The defensive coordination of the Colts looked to be even more of a mess than the Raiders. There are Colts defenders bumping into each other and getting in each others' way quite a bit. It just looks a mess.
I come into this knowing almost nothing about Wheeler and very little about the Colts defense at all. After looking at this, I am cautiously optimistic about Philip Wheeler. His biggest asset at this point is his price tag. I imagine his 1 year deal would be worth under $1M and possibly in the $750K range. Spotrac.com lists his 1st contract being a 4 yr/$2.39M deal with this past year being $555K. [spotrac.com link].
Consider this as well:
In the AFC-West, there is Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, and Matt Cassel. Their WR corps boast players like Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Dwayne Bowe, Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin, and Dexter McCluster. They have Flex TEs like Antonio Gates, Jacob Tamme, Tony Moeaki, and Kevin Boss.
In contrast, the RBs in division are Ryan Mathews (and no Mike Tolbert), Knowshon Moreno/Willis Magahee, and Jamal Charles/Peyton Hillis. While there is some potential, these are mostly underperforming or aging backs. Magahee flourishing with Tebow and Charles a bonafide star, but perhaps a bit more of a finesse back.
With these offenses in division, it is likely that the Raiders defense will be in sub-packages often and that a premium SAM backer may be less important than the Nickel corner (note that Mr. McKenzie has stocked up on that position) or the Dime Safety (Mike Mitchell).
Ultimately, my expectations for Philip Wheeler are minimal. The Raiders don't need him to be a superstar playmaker at the SAM position. They don't need 120 tackles and 20 passes defensed and 12 sacks. What they need from him is for him to play at least average and to play as part of the defensive unit. Play his responsibility, play his discipline, do his job. Know where he is supposed to be and what he is supposed to be doing each time out. He will show up most notably if he blows it and makes a bad play more than by making big plays. The Raiders HAVE guys to make the big plays at all levels of the defense. They have talent. Wheeler needs to fit in and be a complementary player. At least that's my initial expectation. Once we see how the unit plays together, then we'll see if there will be opportunities for him to shine.
I know alot of people have started looking up scouting info and reading up on analyses on his (notably PFF), but in addition to reading football, you can watch football and form your own opinions of what he brings to us and how he will fit into the Raiders (presumably) improved and focused defensive system in 2012.
Here are a number of his plays from 2011.
6 games worth. note that he comes out on sub packages and some teams ran substantial 11 personnel taking him to the sidelines for extended minutes.