The Patriots opened their rookie mini-camp on May 2 with a pair of rookie cornerbacks wearing Nos. 22 and 24, drawing instant images of two other players in recent memory who were pretty successful in those uniforms.
To be sure it was easy to think of Asante Samuel and Ty Law watching Terrence Wheatley andJonathan Wilhite patrolling the secondary in their blue 22 and 24 jerseys, respectively. But it might be more accurate to compare the rookies to Samuel and Eugene Wilson, who broke in together in 2003.
After all, Wheatley and Wilhite were second- and fourth-round picks, just as was the case with Wilson and Samuel five years ago. And like their predecessors, Wheatley and Wilhite wasted little time standing out from the crowd during their first practices as professionals.
Back in 2003, Wilson had yet to make the switch to safety and he and Samuel were pass deflecting machines from their cornerback positions. They showed almost immediately that they'd be contributors with their fearless aggressiveness and willingness to press receivers all over the field.
Time will tell what's in store for Wheatley and Wilhite in their first seasons in New England, but if first impressions are worth anything they're sure to impress.
Wheatley in particular appeared to be the best player on the field among the group of 27 rookie hopefuls, 18 of which entered the weekend as members of the roster. He showcased his blazing 4.32 speed during seven-on-seven drills when he blanketed his receiver more often than not. He also looked fluid in his hip turn and never seemed to be out of position.
"I'm just trying to make this team," an articulate and modest Wheatley said. "What you did in college doesn't matter anymore. Once you get drafted, it doesn't matter whether you were picked in the first, second, third or fourth [rounds]. There are plenty of players in this league who didn't even get drafted. You still have to earn a job.
"Plenty of people get cut, second- and third-round guys. I've got a job to earn."
Wheatley's right about that, although the Patriots obviously thought quite highly of the Colorado product to draft him with the 62nd overall pick. That despite a medical history that led most draft experts to predict he'd be available in the fourth or fifth round. Wheatley's been under the knife almost as often asJoan Rivers, mostly due to wrist problems that have led to the placement of a stainless steel rod in his right wrist. That after a supposedly unbreakable titanium version broke two years ago.
The personable Wheatley has been dealing with questions regarding the injuries for the better part of five years so it was understandable that he politely declined to discuss it when asked about the procedure. More importantly, it's a sign of intelligence since Bill Belichick tends to discourage his players from talking about injuries. Another thing Belichick probably liked about his second-round pick was the seemingly effortless way he went about his business.
"That's part of being a professional," Wheatley said. "If you're coming in to interview for a job, you don't want to show up out of shape. It's essentially like showing up for a regular job with a blank resume and saying, 'Here's what I did in the past and here's my new resume,' and there's nothing on it."
Wilhite also showed an aggressive, pressing style throughout the weekend. While he didn't have quite as much success in preventing completions as Wheatley, he did come up with a few plays of his own.
The best came during Friday afternoon's workout when he went stride-for-stride on a deep ball with one of the receivers in town for a tryout. The Auburn product turned his head and was in position to prevent the completion as the ball deflected off his hands. But Wilhite didn't quit on the play and kept his eyes on the ball as he tumbled to the ground. Somehow he managed to snag it just before it hit the FieldTurf inside the Dana Farber Field House for an interception.
Like Wheatley, Wilhite knows there's a long way to go and much to learn before he can consider himself part of the Patriots.
"Everywhere you go, you have to work to be a part of a team," Wilhite said. "But I know how high profile this team is. The way you do things here, the rookies have caught on quick that you'd better be hard-working and disciplined, or you'll be left behind."
While it might be a stretch to expect Wheatley and Wilhite to duplicate the success of Samuel and Wilson, both have the speed and mentality to make an impact. And neither showed a hint of fear, which is as important as anything for a cornerback, no matter what number he's wearing.