Pats' secondary toughens up

Bill Belichick probably saw the question coming.

In his first public remarks since the acquisition of veteran safety Adrian Wilson, the Patriots' head coach was asked about a comparison to former Patriot Rodney Harrison.

One can see the inspiration for the comparison, as Wilson, who is 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, plays a physical brand of football, and physicality and toughness were hallmarks of Harrison's career and part of what endeared him to fans in New England during his six seasons as a Patriot.

But Belichick was careful in going that far.

"Rodney Harrison is one of the greatest players to ever play for the New England Patriots, and one of the greatest players to play his position in the National Football League," he said at the AFC coaches breakfast at the league owners meetings in Arizona. "That's a pretty high comparison. I'm not saying [Wilson] is or isn't, but you're talking about a great player."

The 33-year-old Wilson, addressing the media for the first time as a Patriot during a Thursday conference call, echoed Belichick's stance in avoiding the comparison.

"[Rodney Harrison was] a great player in this league for a very long time," he said, before adding, "I don't compare myself to anybody. I really want to kind of stay away from the whole Rodney Harrison comparison."

And fairly so.

Harrison arrived in New England at a different stage of his career. The Patriots didn't believe his best football was behind him, which was evident by the lucrative six-year contract he signed prior to the 2003 season. He proved the team right by totaling 264 tackles in his first two seasons in New England, both of which ended in Super Bowl triumphs.

The circumstances are different for Wilson, who was recently released by Arizona less than a year after signing a contract extension. His days of being the cornerstone of a secondary are behind him. The contract once again helps to tell the story, as Wilson's modest three-year, $5 million deal aligns with something closer to a role player than a top-tier starter.

With all indications pointing to Devin McCourty permanently transitioning to safety, Wilson's chances of earning a starting role rest in a competition that will also include Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson.

But more important than where Wilson winds up on the initial depth chart is what he brings to the secondary, something it has almost entirely lacked since Harrison's retirement following the 2008 season: tone-setting toughness.

Opposing offenses didn't appear to fear the middle of the field against the Patriots during the 2012 season -- not in the passing game, at least -- and in no game was that more apparent than the AFC Championship Game, during which the Ravens' tight ends and receivers were productive between the hashes.

That production stemmed from an inability of the Patriots to match their personnel, but was aided by the fact that receivers didn't fear running into a human battering ram in the middle of the field, either.

Playing with the type of toughness that makes receivers think twice before reaching for a pass is part of what Wilson has brought to the table during his 12 NFL seasons.

"I came in in 2001, so there wasn't all these rules where you can't hit players and all this other stuff," Wilson said. "I was kind of brought up in that toughness type of aspect, in the type of aspect of kind of setting the tone on a defense that would go out and do whatever it had to do to kind of let the offense know what kind of day it was going to be."

The Patriots have experimented with other safeties who fit the mold Wilson described. Both Tank Williams and John Lynch were signed prior to the 2008 season (Harrison's last in the NFL), but neither ended up playing a regular-season game for the team.

The Patriots attempted to use both Williams and Lynch in a hybrid defensive back/linebacker role, creating flexibility within their personnel. Wilson has the skill set to fill that role if the team is interested in rekindling the experiment.

In fact, Wilson's contributions in the Patriots' sub defense packages may prove more valuable than his role in the base defense. The team used both Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower alongside Jerod Mayo in its nickel defense in 2012, but neither is a long-term solution due to coverage limitations.

Wilson's frame, physicality and willingness to defend the run (along with his coverage skills) align with what that role requires, and given that the Patriots played 57 percent of their defensive snaps in sub personnel in 2012, it's a critically important position.

His range has decreased and Wilson had some troubles in 2012 with eye discipline in his pattern reads as a deep safety, which may dissuade the team from using him as a starter in its base defense.

But the process of evaluating specifically how Wilson fits in with his new team is an ongoing one for Belichick and his coaching staff.

Whether he becomes a starter or a specialty role player, his toughness will follow him, and that's what the Patriots need.

Though he has been in town for only a handful of days, Wilson already has his eyes on imparting that tough, physical mindset to his teammates.

"Football is physical, football is a man's sport," he said. "And I just hope I can convey that same message to the secondary that we have in New England."