FOXBOROUGH — Ok, let’s get call the caveats out of the way.
There have only been nine practices.
He’s yet to even play an exhibition game, let alone a real NFL game against full-grown men.
If he stays healthy...
If he doesn’t get full of himself and get sent to isolation on Jonas Gray Island somewhere in The Harbor…
OK, good. That’s all out of the way, because we have something to say: Deatrich Wise Jr., the Patriots’ rookie fourth-round pick, not only has an opportunity to be a major contributor for the team this season, he has a real chance to be a star for years to come.
No, I haven’t gone crazy. And, no, I haven’t been drinking the Kraft-flavored Kool Aid upon my re-indoctrination to the Patriots beat.
I’ve just been at practice every day, and Wise’s talent and impactful play has been so overwhelming to this point that you’d be an idiot or overly cautious not to draw the same conclusion. Wise, the 23-year-old Arkansas product, has just been terrific.
Let us count the ways:
Length: This is an enormous young athlete. At the combine, he was measured at 6-foot-5 and 274 pounds, with arms nearly 36 inches and 10.5-inch hands. Those are huge. Those arms and those hands have been a tough combination for blockers and quarterbacks a like. Wise has altered a half-dozen Tom Brady passes to this point. Wise is also very strong. Basically, he appears to be some sort of football version of a Transformer. To go along with his immense frame, he wears forearm pads and team-issued knee braces. Wise certainly looks the part physically. He resembles Patriots Hall of Famer Willie McGinest. Maybe not fourth-overall pick, physical-freak McGinest early in his career. But No. 55 with a few years on him.
Natural instincts: Let’s be honest, Wise doesn’t scream dominating player when you watch him individually. He’s very high cut with long legs and a big, strange stride. He's not overly quick getting off the ball. But there’s something about him. Perhaps it’s genes -- his father was a ninth-round pick of the Seahawks in 1998 and played in the CFL. Most tall players have trouble against offensive line because of the difference in leverage. But through a combination of advanced hand work (he uses a variety of moves well beyond his years) and impressive balance is able to get on the edge of players and close quickly. “I don’t know, I think it’s a mixture of a lot of things,” Wise said when asked what he thinks gives blockers the most trouble. “I guess my length, my bend, quickness. I have something inside of me that just won’t get me get blocked.” Since starting 3-2 in one-on-ones, Wise is 5-1 with his only defeat lining up over the center.
Consistency: With young players, you know you’ll see some flashes of impactful play, and you expect to the see the opposite end of the spectrum: practices where they just don’t have it, especially when the veterans begin to figure him out. But that has yet to happen with Wise. Each day you expect Wise to have an off practice and be invisible (like third-round pick Derek Rivers has been throughout camp), but Wise keeps stacking success and being impactful every session. That’s rare for a rookie.
Comfort with scheme: This, to me, is the biggest reason for optimism for Wise. Not even two weeks into practice, he has lined up everywhere from the 9 technique (outside the tight end) to 1 (shading the center), carried man coverage down the field, dropped into zone coverage and tracked running backs out of the backfield. That the Patriots have asked him to do all that so soon speaks volumes of what they think he is capable of handling. I don’t recall Chandler Jones, a first-round pick in 2012, being asked to perform that many duties in his first camp. Plus, Jones played right end. In the Patriots defense, that’s less complicated than the left end spot, formerly held by Rob Ninkovich, where Wise has been. The other thing about this is Wise, unlike fellow rookies Rivers and Harvey Langi, is that he shows zero signs of struggling with the assignments. It all seems very much in his comfort zone, which is surprising. “Nah, I’m not swimming,” said Wise. “I did a little (dropping in coverage in college), but a lot here. With the help I have from the coaches and the vets, everybody is keeping everybody afloat. For me personally it’s not too much.”
Easy going: While I have learned my lessons over the years about putting too much stock into the personalities of players because we never truly know them, Wise appears to be the genuine article. He’s polite, quick with a smile or a laugh, and actually appears to be a nice person. He also looks like he’s having fun on the field. During a recent practice, he caused the tackle to jump offsides. As they reset the ball, Wise started some sort of karate routine that entertained some of his teammates. Once cameras get on him and fans get to hear Wise speak, fans are instantly going to love him and he’ll become a favorite. Put that together with the ability he’s shown to this point, and you have a potential star.
Still, there are more caveats. If he looks this good so far in New England, why wasn’t he a starter until his senior season at Arkansas? Will the nagging injuries that bothered him last season hinder him once again? What about those legs and knees that look like an injury waiting to happen because they appear way too skinny for his frame and huge upper body?
“I’m very strong in the legs,” said Wise, who added that he squatted 700 pounds in college. “They’re just long, so they look small.”
Wise has a long way to go. So far he hasn’t endured much, if any, adversity, and the ability to deal with roadblocks often determines whether or not a player can hack it in the NFL.
But heading into the first joint practices and then preseason game against the Jaguars, Wise has look of a potential star for the Patriots. There's little denying that. Now we wait to see whether or not he delivers once the lights go on at Gillette starting on Thursday night.