The Raiders signed former Colts LB Philip Wheeler during free agency to a one year contract. As a new addition to the Raiders squad, I watched game tape of two games to get an idea of his strengths and weaknesses as a player.
Linebackers are harder to evaluate than many positions because they work as a unit more than most other positions. The scheme also plays heavily into where a linebacker is supposed to lineup and what gap they are to hit.
When looking at tape, I try to take only what I see, there, with as few preconceived notions as possible. I watched two games from the 2011 season, week 9 with Colts against Atlanta and week 14, Colts against Baltimore.
In the first game, against Atlanta, Wheeler tried to do too much in the first half. There were a number of times that he aggressively pursued the ball carrier only to have the RB make a cut back in the direction Wheeler was coming from. Wheeler attempted arm tackles on these runs but it was hit or miss as to whether that was able to bring down the RB.
There were a number of tackles Wheeler made that were not wrap up tackles so he clearly has good arm strength. I would have liked to have seen more basic rap up tackles but he was one of the most productive members of the defense so at least he was having an impact.
By the second half of the game he was much better at reading the offensive flow, getting in front of the play and setting his feet so that he could either engage a blocker and drive him out of the play or engage the ball carrier and stop his momentum.
When Wheeler set his feet he had good push and was able to make some plays.
Wheeler seems to lack an explosive first step. He isn't slow but he isn't sudden, either. This means he isn't a great sideline to sideline defender. He is good at holding the point of attack when the play comes his direction but he isn't fast enough to be truly effective if the play goes to the opposite direction.
Wheeler played both Strong side and Weak side LB for the Colts. The strong side is the side the TE lines up on. The Colts played a lot of zone and in that scenario he may have started on the TE but if the TE went in motion to the other side he didn't mirror him and his assignment changed.
He looked okay at dropping into coverage but he didn't have good flexibility in his hips to change direction and he struggled with athletic tight ends. By week 14 against Baltimore he was taken off the field in obvious passing situations.
One big area of concern is that Wheeler struggled to disengage from blocks to be able to make a tackle. Especially with bigger offensive lineman, they almost swallowed him up in their blocks. Wheeler isn't tiny but he's certainly on the lower end of OLBs at 6'2" 240 lbs.
There was one called blitz that I saw and he executed it very well and did sack Matt Ryan. He started lined up between the DT and DE off the RG and he moved around the RG into gap between G and C. He got to the QB before the QB had completed his dropback and hit him for a loss.
Overall, Wheeler looks like a role player, not an elite linebacker. He should be able to fill in for this season and help replace Kamerion Wimbley, who had many of the same weaknesses in coverage. Long term, I have to imagine that McKenzie will be looking for a better fit as Wheeler doesn't appear to be a great starting option.