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Wheatley has speed to burn

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / April 27, 2008

FOXBOROUGH - Patriots coach Bill Belichick indicated one of the team's draft priorities was to add speed to the defense, so Colorado cornerback Terrence Wheatley was a natural target with the second-round pick (62d overall).

Wheatley blazed a 4.37 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine in February, and posted a 36 1/2 inch vertical leap. He's also considered a ballhawk, as evidenced by his No. 3 ranking on Colorado's all-time list with 14 interceptions, as well as a dynamic kickoff returner.

"Speed kills," said Wheatley, a former high school track star in Plano, Texas, who turns 23 May 5. "Especially at this position, it's very difficult to make plays if you don't have speed."

Wheatley played in 40 games (28 starts) in his college career, breaking up 31 passes and totaling 156 tackles (124 solo). His 1,350 yards on kickoff returns rank second on Colorado's all-time list, and his 919 yards last season set a school record for a season.

At 5 feet 9 inches and 187 pounds, Wheatley is considered undersized and although he's played through pain, he has been sidelined because of injuries.

He had surgery on a dislocated right wrist in the spring of 2003, missed practice time in 2004 after having another wrist surgery, and had a third wrist surgery in 2005, which sidelined him for the entire season.

"It's not an issue at all," said Wheatley, who missed the final two games last season with a hairline fracture in his foot. "It's not a big deal. There is nothing more to say. I've played a whole year with it and I've proven I can play with it, and it's completely healthy."

As for how Wheatley will fit in New England, it's been an offseason of turnover at cornerback, where the fight for starting jobs figures to be one of the most competitive on the team.

With two of the team's top three corners signing elsewhere in free agency - Asante Samuel to the Eagles, Randall Gay to the Saints - the Patriots began reshaping their corner corps in free agency by inking veterans Fernando Bryant, Lewis Sanders, and Jason Webster to one-year deals.

Those players join returning starter Ellis Hobbs and Mike Richardson, a 2007 sixth-round draft choice who spent last season on injured reserve. The team's first-round pick last season, safety Brandon Meriweather, also could play cornerback.

Wheatley, who changes direction quickly, will look to crack that group. He described his style of play as "very consistent," noting he doesn't "give up a lot of big plays and tries to make as many big plays as possible."

He added that despite his size, he enjoys playing a physical style.

"I like to mix it up from time to time," he said. "Everybody perceives me as the little guy, so you come in and give it to the running back every once in a while and kind of show him 'Hey, I'm a little dude, now, but I'm not going to back down.' "

Wheatley could become a top returner, a spot held primarily by Hobbs last season. Wheatley believes his versatility helped his draft stock.

"When you come in as a rookie, No. 1, you have to be able to play multiple positions," he said. "I think it shows my toughness."

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