Dec. 19, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
FLOWERY BRANCH – Having been around the block more than a few times, Philip Wheeler no longer has to go far to connect with family and friends.
When the Atlanta Falcons called a couple months ago, it was a great day for the former Georgia Tech linebacker, who’d played in 104 games for the NFL’s Colts, Raiders and Dolphins from 2008-14.
Since joining the team at midseason, “It’s like a dream come true, man. I grew up a Falcons fan in Columbus, Ga., went to school at Georgia Tech,” he said. “Now I’m playing my professional ball here, and I couldn’t ask for more than to be around family and let them see me play.”
Wheeler was at home as a Yellow Jacket from 2003-07, especially after redshirting his sophomore year.
He played in 12 games as a freshman, mostly on special teams, and banked six tackles after a prep career in which he helped lead Shaw High to the 2002 Georgia AAAA state championship.
An extra year spent lifting weights and studying the game served Wheeler well.
In 2005 he started all 12 games, registering 64 tackles with 11.5 coming behind the line of scrimmage. He added four interceptions and four pass breakups. Although he didn’t pick off any passes the next season, he led the Jackets with nine sacks while adding 89 tackles in ’06 to earn second team All-ACC honors.
In Wheeler’s final season on The Flats, he moved from outside linebacker to the middle, and the 6-foot-2, 238-pounder led Tech with 89 more tackles. He pitched in every which way, adding the fourth and fifth fumble recoveries of his college career, and 5.5 more sacks.
That earned a spot in the Senior Bowl, where the Colts saw enough to select him in the third round of the 2008 draft.
The NFL’s been good to Wheeler, whose career earnings will approach $17.3 million through the end of this season, when he’s on a one-year contract with Atlanta.
Wheeler gets to see some of his former Tech teammates at work, including wide receiver Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions.
“I talk to Calvin Johnson every once in while,” he said. “Derrick Morgan (Titans), Morgan Burnett (Packers), Daryl Smith (Ravens) is an older teammate. I went to the Georgia game, which unfortunately we didn’t win, and saw Keyaron Fox and some other guys.
“[In games against the Lions] Calvin’s not my enemy, just another guy I’m trying to get the ball from, trying to tackle him. We might smile at each other, or laugh. It’s no big deal.”
After starting 24 of 61 games for Indianapolis through 2011, he signed with the Oakland. Wheeler was only there one season, but it was his best, and it fetched his biggest payday.
He started every game for the Raiders in 2012, and put up a career-best 109 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.
The Dolphins liked what they saw, signing Wheeler to a five-year, $26 million deal in 2013. That included a signing bonus of $7 million.
He rewarded the fish with a new career high of 118 tackles that season, but his production slipped in 2014, and Wheeler was let go last spring in a salary cap dump as Miami sought to clear space to sign free agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a massive contract.
San Francisco signed him soon, but the 49ers cut him before this season began. He was home and working out in Miami when his Atlanta-based agent, Todd France, reached him and said the Falcons were interested.
“He said I had an opportunity to work out for them, and they’ve seen me and like my tape,” Wheeler recalled. “It was a great phone call.”
Signed by the Falcons on Oct. 20, he was inactive for Atlanta’s first game, but has played in all six since, starting two. He led the team with 11 tackles in a loss to the Vikings on Nov. 29.
Despite having played in just six of 13 games, Wheeler’s 13th on the Falcons in tackles, with a combined 25 stops.
Trapped in a six-game losing streak, the Falcons are focusing on the ball this week, according to head coach Dan Quinn, with an emphasis on both holding onto it and stealing it. Atlanta is minus-8 in turnover ratio during the skid after going 5-0 to open the season when the Falcons were plus-five in turnovers.
“We really have to get the ball to win games, help our offense out, and help ourselves off,” Wheeler said. “Turnovers are one of the main stats that show winning teams, turnover differential. We always rip at the ball. We’re trying our best to get interceptions, tips and overthrows.”
After playing at Jacksonville (5-8) Sunday, the Falcons (6-7) Wheeler’s homecoming tour will continue with home games against Carolina and New Orleans to close the season.
“A lot of family get to come now that couldn’t when I was away in other states. They can see me play,” he said. “And I go to Tech all the time. I know some of the coaches, and some of the athletic staff. It’s all like a dream.”