Wheatley, Crable embracing a fresh start
FOXBOROUGH - What a difference a year makes, or so the Patriots hope for cornerback Terrence Wheatley and outside linebacker Shawn Crable.
While inside linebacker Jerod Mayo became an immediate mainstay last season, being named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Wheatley and Crable had far less remarkable rookie campaigns.
Wheatley, the team's second-round pick, struggled to beat out veteran Deltha O'Neal and then fractured his left wrist against Indianapolis, ending his season after eight games (six active). Crable, a third-round pick, was inactive for the first eight games and then went on injured reserve with a shin injury.
While 2008 may have been a forgettable year for both players, they have an opportunity for atonement - and substantially more playing time - in their second seasons. Instead of lamenting last season, both Wheatley and Crable said yesterday during the first day of media access to organized team activities that they've learned from their first-year foibles.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has often said that players show the most improvement between their first and second seasons. Crable, who could take advantage of the uncertainty at outside linebacker opposite Adalius Thomas, and Wheatley, who has veterans Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden in front of him, are out to prove Belichick correct.
"You learn a lot. You learn that some of the things you do in college you can't do up here," said Wheatley. "You learn how to look at a lot of little things. You can't make any false steps. You can't go out there and second-guess yourself. If you do make a break, if you make a break and you're wrong, you're wrong. The one thing I learned is just go out there and trust your instincts and go make plays."
Crable craves a chance to go make plays. The 6-foot-5-inch, 243-pound Crable said he has spent the offseason working out with strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik to improve his leg strength, and studying film of former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest.
"Yeah, I want to play," said Crable. "Don't nobody not want to play. I'm hoping that [Belichick] puts me out there and I get to show what I can do."
With no game experience, Crable said in some ways he still feels as if it's his first season, despite the meetings and mental repetitions last year.
"I don't know what it is like to line up against somebody and play in the games when they matter," he said. "I don't know what that is yet."
That's why when asked if he was a better player this year, Crable coyly said he's a smarter one. "I don't know about better yet," he said.
While Crable is still an unknown, Wheatley flashed some ability last season. The game in which he was injured was his best of the season, and he broke his wrist breaking up a pass.
The cornerback explained that there is no substitute for on-the-field training.
"Once you get in the groove and start seeing things, everything starts to slow down," he said. "When I started playing I was like, 'OK, this actually makes sense now. I'm not out here guessing and second-guessing.' Then you get hurt and you can only learn so much watching film. I can call out routes all day, but it's different when it's coming at you full speed and you've got to react to it."
That's why with his wrist feeling fine, Wheatley was excited to participate in the three days of activities, which consisted of young players and a few veteran newcomers, such as running back Fred Taylor and tight end Chris Baker.
"It's nice to go out and kind of see where you're at physically," Wheatley said. "I feel fine. I'm just a little rusty, want to go out and see a few things I missed seeing last year. I feel good. [I've] just got to get more reps and fine-tune the game a little bit. I'll be all right."
Wheatley has been a bit of a forgotten man in the excitement over 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler, but he's not going to shy away from the crowded field at cornerback, which also includes 2008 fourth-rounder Jonathan Wilhite, who started the last four games of last season. Crable is similarly cramped at linebacker.
"Competition makes everybody better," Wheatley said. "If you can play then you'll be out there playing."
Only time - and competition - will tell whether Wheatley and Crable are slow starters or nonstarters.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.