One of the biggest moves by the New England Patriots this off-season flew somewhat under the radar because it took place during the hoopla surrounding the departure of Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos. But the addition of safety Adrian Wilson fills a big need both on and off the field and should pay immediate dividends.
Wilson, a 12 year veteran with 5 Pro-Bowls to his credit with the Arizona Cardinals signed a three-year, $5 million deal during the free agency period, as the Patriots are looking for him to lend a veteran presence to the safety group as well as utilize his physical skills in the box and covering tight ends, an area that was really lacking in the defense the past few years.
The Patriots last year played a lot with essentially two free safeties in Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory with rookie Tavon Wilson getting mostly sub-package reps down the stretch. They’ve lacked the pro-typical large strong safety that can provide the in-the-box run support and cover the tight ends.
The feeling is that eventually Tavon will assume the position and grow into the role of a strong safety, but for now the younger Wilson will compete for reps with the veteran with tons of experience and the size (6’3, 230) that the team needs. Wilson should be able to and expected to step in an immediately contribute on the field.
One area that is already paying dividends is his professionalism and his work ethic. During this week’s mini-camp, coach Bill Belichick spoke about how Wilson is bringing this and more to the table.
“Adrian has done a good job. He’s worked hard,” Belichick said. “He’s very professional and has a real good attitude. Has a lot of experience. We’ll see how all the rest of it plays out,” Belichick added.
“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. And he’s really tried to learn and buy into our program and do everything he can to find a way to contribute. I think he’s very well respected.”
A common refrain heard in New England is that the Patriots haven’t had a physical presence at the strong safety position since Rodney Harrison retired. And while the team doesn’t approach the position like that, liking players to fulfill both roles as strong and free, the argument has merit. A look at the production that opposing tight ends have had against New England is ready proof.
So what does the man he’s being compared to (Harrison) think of the signing? He’s all on board with it.
“I think he can come in especially during nickel and dime situations, and come down [close to the line] and play that second linebacker position like I did,” Harrison said to the Boston Herald soon after the signing.
“He’s physical enough to help out in the run game, but he can also cover tight ends. So he can be that guy next to [Jerod] Mayo who can come in and really make a difference in that nickel and dime package…. It’s a fantastic move,” Harrison added. I think he’ll help the Patriots immediately. I think he’ll hold people accountable.”
”For what the Patriots need, they don’t need Ed Reed. They need an Adrian Wilson,” Harrison said. “They don’t need a free safety that can intercept balls. They have that. Devin McCourty is that Ed Reed [role]. He doesn’t have that name behind him. But he is developing into a young safety. They need a guy like Adrian Wilson who can really give them versatility in those nickel and dime packages. He’ll help that secondary right away.”
With the competition in camp to make the roster and fight for reps, look to Wilson to not only compete hard, but to mentor the younger players and prepare them to play at a high level for the Patriots defense. A look at the current roster breakdown for safeties includes:
McCourty is a lock to start at the free safety position; the two Wilsons will compete for starting reps at strong safety. Gregory provides depth and can fill in as the extra man in sub-packages. Ebner is really more of a special teams player, but did get in some snaps on defense last season.
Harmon, who was selected as a surprise selection in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft is an unknown quantity at this time. Davis was a free safety who played strong safety for the first time in the Senior Bowl. How the Patriots will view him positionally will bear watching once training camp begins.
But the safety position for 2013 looks to be much more solid at least on paper, with McCourty now starting the season as the center fielder at free safety and with an addition of the veteran presence and savvy of Adrian Wilson.
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