FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Adrian Wilson gives the New England Patriots the physical presence they’ve lacked in the defensive backfield. They give the former Arizona Cardinal a chance for a rare playoff appearance.
And the five-time Pro Bowl strong safety says he hasn’t lost a step despite diminished playing time last season.
“The situation last year was strictly a coaches’ decision,” Wilson, who signed last week, said in a conference call Thursday. “Physically, I feel great.”
He spent all 12 of his NFL seasons with the Cardinals before being released March 8. Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasted little time going after him and he signed with New England eight days later.
“Whenever Coach Belichick calls, you answer. That’s not a call that you send to voicemail,” Wilson said. “Obviously, being able to be competitive every year and being able to play not only for the playoffs and the division championship, but also to have a chance to go to the Super Bowl” drew him to the Patriots.
The Cardinals missed the playoffs in Wilson’s first seven seasons. Then their fortunes changed with an appearance in the Super Bowl in the 2008 season, a 27-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They went 10-6 the next season, their best record while Wilson was with them, and won a wild-card game losing in the divisional round.
But they missed the playoffs the past three seasons and went 5-11 last year.
The Patriots reached the postseason in 10 of the past 12 seasons and won three of their five Super Bowls in that span. But they lost their last two and have been missing a hard-hitting safety the past four seasons after Rodney Harrison retired following the 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl after the 2007 season.
“He came to New England and won a championship,” Wilson said. “I don’t compare myself to anybody. I really want to stay away from the whole Rodney Harrison comparison. He’s a great player. He’s done a lot in this league. He’s probably going to go into the Hall of Fame. I’m just trying to find out what my role is for the Patriots and just compete with all the rest of the guys and, hopefully, I’ll have a role on the team.”
His signing, plus the trade for 6-foot-1, 205-pound cornerback Aqib Talib last Nov. 1, gives the Patriots size they lacked in the secondary. Wilson is 6-3 and weighs 230.
“Whatever I put on tape, that’s what I am,” Wilson said. “I came in in 2001, so there weren’t all these rules where you can’t hit players and all this other stuff. I was brought up in that toughness type of aspect and the aspect of setting the tone for the defense, being that guy that would go out and do whatever he had to do to let the offense know what type of day it was going to be.
“I’ve tried to taper my game a little bit toward the rules and what it is now. Football is physical. Football is a man’s sport.”
Wilson is one of six NFL players with 25 interceptions and 25 sacks. He made the Pro Bowl in 2006 and every year from 2008 through 2011. He has 27 interceptions and 25 sacks, including eight in 2005, the most ever by a defensive back.
The Patriots’ pass defense improved when they moved Devin McCourty to safety from cornerback after the sixth game. Steve Gregory started at the other safety spot for all but the four games he missed due to injury.
It got even better once Talib arrived and was able to provide one-on-one coverage against top receivers.
Wilson had visits to other teams set up after being released but felt they wouldn’t compete for the Super Bowl. And he said it was “a difficult situation” leaving his only pro team, especially after he took a pay cut to stay with the Cardinals before last season.
But he’s only 33 years old and has a much better chance to win a championship even if he has “zero connections” with any of his new teammates.
“I feel like that’s a good thing because you can start fresh and you can let the guys understand what type of player you are and what type of person that you are,” Wilson said. “We’re all trying to get to the same goal and that’s to win a Super Bowl.