Fans look at Philip Wheeler and see the hair, the long locks tumbling out of his helmet.
Reggie McKenzie looks at Wheeler and sees a potential big-time playmaker, a linebacker who can wreak havoc.
The new Raiders general manager, in an offseason shakeup of his roster, brought in Wheeler as a free agent and believes he can be a difference-maker in silver and black, much more than he was in his four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
Now that the Raiders will play a more aggressive defensive scheme, with varying fronts and more blitzes, McKenzie sees the 6-foot-2, 240-pound outside linebacker as a player whose speed, strength and football smarts can translate into tackles and sacks.
“We saw that he was very athletic and very tough, he didn’t shy away from contact,” McKenzie told the San Francisco Chronicle, in an assessment of Wheeler’s strengths. “He showed quickness. He could do anything athletically. I think the coaching staff (of the Raiders) has done a great job of honing in at what he does best, and then let him go.
“Don’t handcuff him, just let him flow and be instinctive and go to the ball. He was probably lacking a little bit of that in Indy, but he’s definitely taken off with this coaching staff.”
Wheeler, in fact, was singled out recently by several writers who cover the Raiders as perhaps the best new player on the team this summer.
Wheeler is expected to thrive in the new defensive scheme run by coordinator Jason Tarver under head coach Dennis Allen. He’ll blitz, he’ll drop into coverage and his athleticism gives Tarver multiple options.
“He has the ability to do a lot of things,” Tarver told the Chronicle’s Vic Tafur.
Though Wheeler was solid in Indianapolis, particularly over the past three seasons when he registered a total of 207 tackles, he had just two sacks and no interceptions. The Raiders think he can be more of an impact player if they cut him loose while alternating between their standard 4-3 front and a 3-4, moving Wheeler around.
“Offenses are going to be in for a big surprise,” Wheeler told Tafur. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting some sacks, picks, knockout shots, not only from myself but from my other teammates. We’ve got some amazing athletes out there. We got fast athletes, some of the fastest guys in the league out there.”
Wheeler will line up outside of middle linebacker Rolando McClain with Aaron Curry (when he gets healthy) or rookie Miles Burris on the other side.
Wheeler says the Raiders defense is built for linebackers to be impact players, and he’s eager to make an impact.
“It’s way more aggressive,” Wheeler told CBS Sports of the Raiders’ scheme, compared with the Colts’. “It’s more fun, more play-making for a lot of guys, more plays out there to be made for a lot of guys instead of a couple of guys. In Indy I was involved in a cover-2 scheme. Playmakers were like the defensive ends. I guess this is more linebacker-friendly and everybody-friendly. Everybody makes plays in this defense.”
That’s the hope, anyway.
The Raiders, who were one of the worst teams in the league defensively in 2011, are counting on players such as Wheeler, two new starting corners and a new approach to be much improved.
Says Wheeler: “We’re definitely going to try to create confusion vs. the quarterback and offensive lines.”