ALAMEDA -- Philip Wheeler is part safety, part linebacker and all attitude.
Listed as the Raiders starting strong side linebacker, Wheeler will be found all over the field when regular season kicks off Monday night at O.co Coliseum against the San Diego Chargers.
He'll be easy to spot. With dreadlocks flowing from underneath his helmet and an enthusiasm that teammate Lamarr Houston calls ``contagious,'' Wheeler, at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, was a must-see player throughout training camp.
``I'm looking forward to getting some sacks, picks and knockout shots, not only from myself but from my teammates,'' Wheeler said. ``We've got fast athletes, some of the fastest guys in the league out there.''
Wheeler was an under-the-radar March signing as an unrestricted free agent after general manager Reggie McKenzie determined the Raiders couldn't afford to honor the contract Kamerion Wimbley signed with the previous regime.
As a Cover 2 linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts, it was Wheeler's job to fall into coverage and keep opponents in front of him. The defensive philosophy -- prevent the other team from scoring more points than Peyton Manning put up.
A solid if unspectacular performer in Indianapolis for four seasons, Wheeler's new teammates didn't know a lot about him.
``I remember when he was with the Colts, I'd see this crazy guy with dreads, running around, just hitting people,'' safety
Unchained with the Raiders' new defensive scheme, Wheeler had downfield interceptions as well as on short and intermediate passes during training camp. He has rushed the passer as a blitzer and filled gaps against the run.
One day, Wheeler inadvertently leveled running back Mike Goodson -- Goodson lowered his head into Wheeler's shoulder upon impact -- and sent him to the hospital.
With Wheeler around the ball, Raiders players learned to keep their head on a swivel, according to Raiders safety Mike Mitchell, a live wire who also has a reputation for friendly fire.
``You can't change him. That's just how he is,'' Mitchell said. ``We got to get him to quit hitting our own guys. He might be worse than me. I see big things for him, man. I'm just waiting to see him play Monday night.''
Wheeler, at the bargain price of a reported $700,000 for one year is a valuable piece of the multiple defense installed by coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.
Tarver was an assistant with the 49ers staff that worked at the Senior Bowl when Wheeler was a draft-eligible linebacker out of Georgia Tech. Tarver likes Wheeler's ``position flexibility'' as well as his passion.
``He's able to do a lot of things and he loves playing football,'' Tarver said. ``He's all over the field, and you can't miss him because his dreads are all over the field. He's a pleasure to coach because he's always looking to get better, asking the next-step question.''
Offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who was quarterbacks coach for Houston, sees a different Wheeler than the one he looked at on film twice a year when the Texans prepared to play the Colts.
``From what I see on the other side, this scheme we're running fits his abilities more because he is a quick, fast linebacker that can cause havoc when he blitzes,'' Knapp said.
For all Wimbley did for the Raiders, and his pass rushing skill in the nickel defense earned him a 5-year, $35 million contract as a defensive end in Tennessee, Huff said, ``Phil will be better. He's more versatile, and with the multiple fronts and things we're doing, it will help this defense be better.''
Said Wheeler: ``I just like the way the coaches are letting us be aggressive. Not sitting back on my heels, not sitting back in a Cover 2 on every play. It's the opposite of that.''