FOXBOROUGH — Soft-spoken but imposing in stature, 33-year-old Adrian Wilson is one of only six players in NFL history to record at least 25 sacks and 25 interceptions in his career.
When the Patriots signed the five-time Pro Bowler in March, they wanted a veteran presence at safety.
“But no, I don’t consider myself the leader of the safeties,” Wilson said. “I’m just falling in the background. Devin is the leader in that room.”
That would be Devin McCourty, a captain for the Patriots last season. But he’s not the most experienced returning safety on New England’s roster. That’s Steve Gregory, entering his eighth year in the NFL.
Also in the position group: Tavon Wilson, coming off a promising rookie campaign, and Duron Harmon, a third-round draft pick this year.
Meet the Patriots safeties. It’s a deep group — perhaps the deepest the Patriots have presented in years.
Exact roles have not yet been cemented, a testament to the stiff competition.
“Competition is always great,” safeties coach Brian Flores said. “It brings out the best in everyone. And that’s why we’re in this game. Because we all love competition.”
In each of the past three seasons, the Patriots were one of the league’s worst four teams for pass defense.
Adrian Wilson adds muscle and grit to the secondary. At 6 feet 3 inches and 230 pounds, his teammates nicknamed him “The Incredible Hulk.”
Cornerback Kyle Arrington calls him “Big Brother.”
“He is smart and he works hard,” Flores said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked. He’s a good guy for those younger guys to talk to because he’s had so much experience playing in this league.”
Wilson likely will start at strong safety alongside McCourty.
McCourty switched from cornerback to safety midway through last season. Through the first four days of training camp, it appears that is where he will stay.
“He’s comfortable anywhere when he’s on the field,” Flores said. “Get him in between those white lines and he’s comfortable.”
Versatility is a premium in coach Bill Belichick’s defense. McCourty’s willingness to adjust to the team’s needs has resonated with the coaches.
“Plus he works his butt off,” Flores said. “He works at every facet of his game. And I’m happy to have him.”
This is the first time in McCourty’s career he is starting the season as a safety. The free safety is what Flores calls “the quarterback of the defense.”
“He’s getting comfortable with the position, getting comfortable with communication, getting comfortable with the players around him,” Flores said. “For him to be in that spot? It’s been good. Real good for him.”
Adrian Wilson, who turns 34 in October, likely will be replaced in passing situations. Gregory and Tavon Wilson are competing for the nickel safety position.
As a rookie last season, Tavon Wilson recorded four interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 16 games. He started five.
Belichick long has stressed improvement for second-year players. They know the system, have a year of training in the weight room, and should understand what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
Flores said Tavon Wilson has “improved every day.”
“I don’t want to sit here and say he made a big leap,” Flores said. “But he’s definitely done a good job. He’s working hard.”
Flores said Tavon Wilson now has seen a lot of route patterns and understands coverage better.
That’s what Harmon is working on now. Harmon, from Rutgers, is 6-1 and 205 pounds and projects to have similar characteristics — he’s aggressive and hard-nosed — as Adrian Wilson.
Harmon will factor on special teams this season, and could develop as a long-term option at strong safety. Flores said Harmon is learning from the veterans.
“He leans on everyone in that room, that’s a cohesive unit,” Flores said. “The group as a whole, they’re all leaning on each other.”