The Patriots announced the return of cornerback Terrence Wheatley to practice on Tuesday. Wheatley had shown promise during his rookie season in 2008, before it was cut short due to an injury. He was "healthy" during the 2009 season, but never really played, which led some to believe that he was not fully recovered from his injuries. He had a solid 2010 preseason, where I believed he had played well enough to surpass Jonathan Wilhite on the depth chart. The return of Wheatley could strengthen the young secondary.
Darius Butler hasn't played to the standards fans and media everywhere had expected of him. Wilhite has played as well as he should- as a nickel back. Kyle Arrington has played beyond his skill level and has been starting, but he is still not a proven commodity. Then again, neither is Wheatley. Only Devin McCourty has played to any level of excellence, and even he's still a rookie who is prone to mistakes.
What does Wheatley's return mean for the secondary? What can we hope for?
Find out after the jump!
Here's my expected depth chart, with Wheatley's return.
1. Devin McCourty (2010, rookie)
2. Kyle Arrington (2008, 3rd year)
3. Jonathan Wilhite (2008, 3rd year)
4. Darius Butler (2009, 2nd year)
5. Terrence Wheatley (2008, 3rd year)
Five cornerbacks, none with more than three years of NFL experience. The defense needs Butler to play as well as he did during his rookie season in 2009. Butler accumulated 8 pass deflections and 3 interceptions as the #2/#3 corner on the team. Considering that only McCourty (and I guess Butler himself) is on pace for 8 pass deflections, the Patriots would love to have 2009 Butler back on the field. Butler was unable to perform as a #1 corner, but he has not been given the chance to play as the #2 corner, nor has he been given a shot as the #3 corner. With such a quick fall from grace, any chance that Butler is given must be flawless on Butler's part. He knows he can play like a #2 corner- he just has to have the opportunity.
Arrington, on the other hand, is a giant question mark playing as the #2 corner. He has the speed to run with fast players (Roscoe Parrish), but not the skill to cover quick players (Davone Bess). A special teamer by nature, Arrington really should only be on the field to face speed receivers, but he's had to play every down due to the lack of talent behind him on the depth chart. Once the coaches regain confidence in Butler (which should happen over the next couple weeks), look for Arrington to have a reduced role at corner as he only comes on to cover speedy receivers.
Wilhite is Wilhite. He's found his niche on the team- he's a solid #3 and an excellent #4 corner. He should play out his rookie contract, but don't expect an extension. He has very little upside, so everything that you know about Wilhite is all that will come from him. He's good in the slot. He's a good match-up against opposing teams' #3 and #4 receivers. Don't expect him to start. He's not the answer to the defense.
Enter Wheatley. With only McCourty with a really guaranteed starting spot, the fresh-off-the-injury-list Wheatley is truly in the competition for a starting role. The only thought is that no one should expect anything from Wheatley. Wheatley is the secondary's version of Shawn Crable. Whatever he produces is a bonus- but if he doesn't do anything, no one should be disappointed. That said, Wheatley still has potential. He has shown, when he's been on the field, that he has a nose for the ball and an ability to disrupt plays.
So what can we hope for the Patriots' secondary?
1. Devin McCourty
2. Darius Butler
3. Terrence Wheatley
4. Kyle Arrington
5. Jonathan Wilhite
This is how I hope the depth chart develops over the next couple weeks. I believe that Butler just needs a chance to prove that he can be a #2 corner. Wheatley needs to see the field and I see him rising up the depth chart. Arrington will still see the field, but only in certain situations. Wilhite should drop down the chart as other players are just better than him.
What do you think? How do you think Wheatley will impact the secondary?