Raiders fans this past season came to know Philip Wheeler as the high-motor linebacker with the long, black hair flying from under his helmet.
No. 52 was one of the few working parts on a defense that was largely flawed.
Wheeler, in his first season in Oakland after four seasons with Indianapolis, played all 16 games, led the team in tackles with 109, had three sacks and also forced two fumbles.
He also ranked as one of the NFL’s best in quarterback pressures.
He signed a one-year free-agent deal with the Raiders last March, and proved to be one of the team’s best offseason moves under new GM Reggie McKenzie.
Now, McKenzie must decide whether to keep Wheeler around another season.
On Monday, Wheeler seemed to express his desire to stay in Oakland by retweeting this Tweet to him by a Raiders fan: “We want you in Oakland the rest of your career!” Since the end of the season, in fact, Wheeler has often retweeted messages from Raiders fans urging him to stick around.
For the Raiders, the question isn’t whether Wheeler is a good fit for the defense. There’s no question he is. By the end of the season, he not only was one of the team’s best defensive players, but the guy calling defensive plays.
Bill Williamson, ESPN.com’s AFC West blogger, included Wheeler in his listing of top 10 free agents from the AFC West, and wrote: “Wheeler is a solid starter who the Raiders will want to keep.”
The question for the Raiders – reported to be as much as $4.5 million over the salary cap – is whether they can juggle and cut their roster to keep Wheeler and other key unrestricted free agents, a group that includes tight end Brandon Myers, who emerged last season into one of the AFC’s best (79 catches).
The Raiders could put the franchise tag on Wheeler to keep him for another season but, as Williamson noted in a separate post last week, that would be costly. The NFL’s franchise tag for a linebacker is much for expensive than for a tight end, so Oakland could more efficiently tag Myers.
“The tight end franchise tag is tentatively set at $5.962 million,” he wrote. “The linebacker tag is set at more than $9 million. Wheeler is a good starter, but it would be surprising if he is given the franchise tag. There is an outside chance Oakland could use the tag on punter Shane Lechler, even though he is 36 and who showed signs of slowing down in 2012.”
Last season, Wheeler signed a one-year deal for $700,000. It sounds as if he would stay in Oakland for a lot less than that $9 million franchise-tag price.
Said Wheeler in December, as he talked with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur about his first season in Oakland, which also was the best of his career: “Would love to come back. The sky’s the limit for me and the team here.”
Added linebackers coach Johnny Holland (since fired): “Phil, he plays like the game should should be played. Plays hard and gives it everything he’s got. That’s the kind of guy we want.”