Adrian Wilson is a five-time Pro Bowler. He is a four-time NFL All-Pro. He is a former NFC Champion. He is member of the 25-sack, 25-interception club.
He is a living, breathing, 6’3”, 230-pound accolade.
But entering his 13th NFL campaign, it will take more than accolades for the 33-year-old strong safety to make an impact with the New England Patriots.
It will take what’s left in his tank.
After 12 seasons in the dry heat of Glendale, Arizona, Wilson was released by the Arizona Cardinals on March 8. Although he started 14 contests in 2012, Wilson found himself losing snaps and being taken off entirely during nickel packages.
According to Football Outsiders, the North Carolina State product played just 78 percent of defensive downs while fellow safety Kerry Rhodes was on the field for 94 percent of downs.
The playing time drop-off was the first hint. The performance drop-off—going from a plus-20.3 Pro Football Focus grade in 2011 to a minus-2.4 grade in 2012—was the second hint. The change in coaching regime was the third and final hint.
Wilson saw the writing on the wall. He was in need of a fresh start.
He found one in the temperate summers, crisp falls and snowy winters of Foxborough, Massachusetts, when the Patriots signed him to a three-year, $5 million deal one week later, per Spotrac.
Obviously a $1 million signing bonus is quite a lure. Yet for Wilson, the opportunity to play for head coach Bill Belichick was what he couldn’t pass up. He reaffirmed that sentiment in a conference call, via Patriots.com, saying, “Whenever Coach Belichick calls, you answer. That’s not a call that you send to voicemail.”
Now, though, Wilson will have to pick up more than just the phone; he’ll have to pick up the Patriots defense.
The veteran will have make stops versus both the run and pass. He’ll have to be versatile. He’ll have to use his instincts to chase down offensive trickery. And of course, he’ll have to be a leader for the young defense.
Can his past impact in Arizona provide a glimpse of his future in New England?
Let’s take a closer look at what No. 24 can be for the Patriots.
An 8th Man in the Box
Wilson is a familiar face near the line of scrimmage. Offensive linemen know him, running backs know him, and most certainly, quarterbacks know him.
The former third-round draft pick is built for battle. He has a knack for dropping down from the high-safety spot. And from there, he is known to needle through blockers on his way to making contact.
Even in a down 2012, Wilson totaled three sacks, which was tied for the lead among safeties, cites Advanced NFL Stats. He also was tied for third in quarterback hits with four, and tied for fifth in tackles for loss with four.
That type of enforcement was missing from New England’s secondary last season. Now-Philadelphia Eagle Patrick Chung was statistically the most confrontational of New England’s center fielders despite performing rather unspectacularly.
Against the New York Jets in Week 13 last season, Wilson showcased his in-the-box prowess. It all started with deception.
On a 2nd-and-5, Wilson crept down from the second level of the 3-3-5 alignment, which suggested he might jam the “X” receiver preparing to run a fade route down the left sideline.
Wilson didn’t jam anyone, and he didn’t cover anyone, either. Instead, he sliced right through the line unblocked on a collision course with Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Sanchez failed to make the necessary pre-snap adjustments and wound up under duress as Wilson swung off the edge.
Sanchez scrambled up into the pocket before hitting the turf as Wilson notched a shoelace tackle. The play went for a loss of three yards.
Wilson’s burst in blitz situations should add a different dynamic to the Patriots defense. After all, Derrick Martin was the only Patriots defensive back to record a sack last season.
An Enforcer in Traffic
Carved in the mold of a strong safety circa 1990, it’s hard to believe that Wilson is actually three inches taller and nearly 30 pounds heavier than hard-hitting Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott.
So when it comes to his fellow Patriots safeties, it’s not all that shocking to discover that Wilson is at least two inches taller and at least 20 pounds heavier than all six of them.
He’s unlike anything the Patriots’ brass has seen in quite some time.
With that bulk comes expectations. Expectations that he can close off the middle of the field, where the Patriots struggled to impose with the light-footed Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory combo at safety.
Yes, Wilson is big. He’s in tremendous shape, too. It would be unfair, however, to brand him as the next Rodney Harrison in New England’s defense.
But all things considered, he’s the next closest thing.
He may no longer break up more than a handful of passes in one season. He may not intercept more than one or two passes in a season, either. Nevertheless, Wilson’s role can be invaluable if he is allowed to do what he does best:
During Arizona’s Week 4 tilt versus the Miami Dolphins, Wilson exemplified this ability. On a Miami 2nd-and-13 in the midst of the first quarter, the Dolphins stood in “21” personnel as receiver Brian Hartline went in motion.
Hartline cut underneath on a slant pattern while Wilson, who stepped up into linebacker territory prior to the snap, merged towards the numbers to cover fullback Jorvorskie Lane.
In turn, Hartline had an open path and was on the other end of a Ryan Tannehill throw.
Wilson ran back to the ball and delivered a hit on Hartline. The reception resulted in a seven-yard pickup.
Lapses in coverage will happen. Wilson just wants those lapses to be minimized by halting after-catch moves before they get started.
A Chess Piece Against Tight Ends
Wilson is touted for his size, ball skills and niche for the offensive backfield. That said, he doesn’t garner enough credit for one of his greatest assets: his ability to cover tight ends.
Not only can Wilson be used as a strong safety, single-high safety and an eighth man in the box, but he can be used as a “Money” defensive back to cover big receivers downfield. It would be a surprise if he did not find a function at least covering tight ends, especially since the Patriots have hit some speed bumps in terms of defending big, rangy pass-catchers up the seam.
Wilson can pose a tough matchup for tight ends, particularly when it comes to a threat the Patriots know quite well:
Mr. Rob Gronkowski.
Versus New England in Week 2, Wilson lined up against the 6’6” “Y” tight end and fared well.
On a 1st-and-10 in the third quarter, Wilson saw strong-side linebacker O’Brien Schofield going helmet-to-helmet with Gronkowski.
Wilson walked up to Gronkowski, knowing that while the Patriots were in “11” personnel with three wide receivers, he would have to assume tight end responsibilities behind the Cards’ 2-4 defensive front.
Quarterback Tom Brady took the snap and worked a play-action fake to ball-carrier Stevan Ridley. Meanwhile, Wilson pressed Gronkowski’s outside shoulder within the five-yard bubble.
Wilson shaded Gronkowski as he ran a fade down the right hash mark, sticking stride for stride with the All-Pro receiving option.
Brady ultimately completed a pass over the middle to slot target Wes Welker. Nevertheless, it wasn’t due to Wilson’s labors disrupting Gronkowski’s route.
Now that he’s a member of the opposing side, Wilson’s triumphs versus tight ends should go a long way towards him finding a niche with the Patriots.
A Watchful Eye in the Flats
When offenses exploit the checkdown passing game, defenses can be put on their heels. Under these circumstances, the wideout who has attracted double coverage in the end zone is no longer the danger.
It’s the running back who stayed in to block the quarterback before slipping out to the flats.
With one hurried dump-off, suddenly a shifty rusher is a receiver working the boundary against 250- to 300-pound defensive lineman and linebackers. If the offensive line orchestrates its blocks to perfection, it can be a nightmare trying to stop what took little effort to form.
Fortunately for Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, Wilson has both the experience and the force to dissect these types of plays.
When the Cardinals hosted the Buffalo Bills in Week 6 of last season, Wilson got the chance to prove it.
On a 2nd-and-6 in the second quarter of action, the Bills operated with three-wide receiver trips left and a sixth offensive lineman subbed in as an eligible tight end. Arizona, meanwhile, operated out of a sub-package front seven standing off the line.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took the snap and faked a handoff to running back Fred Jackson. Then he faked a handoff to wideout T.J. Graham on a reverse.
Wilson, who was sitting quietly in the nickel spot, waited patiently for the play to develop. Managing zone coverage, he allowed Pro Bowler Stevie Johnson to run past him knowing that he had help over the top.
He saw Fitzpatrick turn back from the play action and quickly toss a pass off his back foot for Jackson to work the backfield.
Wilson closed in on the ball, hitting Jackson like a freight train and leaving the Bills with a loss of six yards.
Discipline is an unheralded trait. And Wilson has shown he has it. Allowing things to unfold and diagnosing the offense before making a decision could pay dividends for the Patriots if Wilson is utilized to his strengths.
Charging full-steam ahead into the flats is one of his strengths.
With a baker’s dozen years of NFL tread on his tires, Wilson is not the player he once was.
He is unlikely to have another 100-tackle season. He is unlikely to scratch another five-interception season. And he is certainly unlikely to ever register another eight-sack season.
Yet in order to succeed with the Patriots, he doesn’t need to do any of those things.
He just needs to lead by example.
As ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss transcribed, Belichick explained a similar sentiment during minicamp:
Adrian has done a good job. He’s worked hard. Very professional. Has a real good attitude. Has a lot of experience. We’ll see how all the rest of it plays out. I would imagine what [players] were referring to is how he carries himself, the way he goes about his job. Works hard. Smart guy. Experienced.
Wilson will make his impact felt both on the field and in the minds of his young teammates at the safety position. At the safety position, aside from him, the average age is 24 years old and there are four first- or second-year players.
Whether he is a starter or a sub-package specialist is insignificant.
Because whether he’s an eighth man in the box, an enforcer, a defensive back that can cover tight ends, an enforcer against running backs, or a mentor, Wilson will leave his mark.
And he'll do so in more ways than one.
Oliver Thomas is a New England Patriots featured columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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