On draft day 2008 the Patriots selected Auburn cornerback Jonathan Wilhite in the fourth round, with the 129th pick. And it was to the dismay of many fans. The Patriots already had a small cornerback on the roster in Ellis Hobbs. Then they had added another in the form of Terrence Wheatley in the 2nd round of the draft. But then in round 4, out of nowhere, the Patriots had taken yet another undersized cornerback. Consider the opinion of Patriots Football Weekly writer Tom Casale:
I like what the Pats have done up to this point but I really dislike this pick. I watched a lot of Auburn football the last couple of years and teams targeted Wilhite every single week. The Tigers had a strong defense but Wilhite was the guy opposing offenses would constantly exploit. Hey, maybe he has something I didn’t see watching games on TV but Wilhite is a player I’m not high on at all. If you have an Auburn game on tape from last year, pop it in and you will most likely see a receiver beating Wilhite like a drum. Sorry guys, I liked the first three selections but this one I just don’t get.
But it wasn’t just Casale that thought this. It was the vast majority of fans. Wilhite had been pegged as an undersized cornerback that had stone hands and an injury history. I wasn’t too down on the pick, but I thought he was ceiling would be as our nickel back. Well, I’ll tell you, I might have been wrong. Wilhite impressed from the get go, with a strong rookie camp followed by strong mini-camps. He continued that play into the preseason, and eventually the regular season.
By week 2, Wilhite was seeing some time in sub-packages as a fifth or sixth defensive back. Not even halfway through the season, I had this to say about him:
Amazingly, rookie cornerback Jonathan Wilhite has already jumped fellow rookie Terrence Wheatley on the depth chart. While Wilhite projects as a future nickelback, he has shown some flashes of being a solid, more physical cornerback, with shutdown speed. So far this year, Wilhite has six tackles, but has also looked good in coverage and has certainly looked the most impressive of all Patriots’ rookie defensive backs to this point.
Wilhite was already thriving as the team’s nickel back, and by week 14, he had passed Deltha O’Neal on the depth chart. In the final four games of the season, all games in which Wilhite started, the team was much better in pass coverage, as they cruised to four straight wins. During the stretch Wilhite pick up 12 tackles, two passes defended, and one interception. He was stiflingly consistent for a rookie, not letting up any big plays, staying with receivers all over the field, and even stepping up with some solid run coverage.
My point is, a lot of Patriots fans, myself included, are panicing about the Patriots’ immediate needs in the secondary. And while picking up a Springs or a Bodden would be terrific, the Patriots might be brewing something special in Jonathan Wilhite.