The 2014 Bears have been built to win right now, especially on defense. The organization signed 32-year-olds Jared Allen and Jeremiah Ratliff on the defensive line, and extended Tim Jennings and re-signed Charles Tillman at the corners, both 30-plus. On that point, safety Adrian Wilson, 34, more than fits.
“I like Adrian,” said coordinator Mel Tucker. “He came in, worked to learn the system and the terminology. He's a real pro, and he's very, very serious about his job and he wants to make sure he knows exactly what to do, and I'm looking forward to seeing his progress.”
And progress should not surprise. Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott was All-Pro three times after age 30. Gary Fencik was a second team All-Pro safety at age 31 with the ’85 Bears. Cornerback/safety Charles Woodson was All-Pro four times after age 30 and NFL defensive player of the year at age 33.
But there’s a problem, one that Wilson doesn’t like.
Doesn’t like it at all.
The underlying assumption with Allen, Jennings and Ratliff is that they can still play at a high level, meaning Super Bowl. They were signed to multi-year deals. That assumption is there with Tillman, too, but he’s on a one-year deal and the organization did add a powerful hedge by using the 14th pick of the draft on cornerback Kyle Fuller.
All of those other seasoned veterans opened training camp as the locked-in starters. Not so for Wilson.
The unpleasant reality for him is that he is facing an ironic tipping point that many, many veterans in any line of work face late in their careers: At the very point when your credentials and accomplishments should speak for themselves, you are being asked to prove that you still have enough left of the things that made you what you are. Or were.
For Wilson, the NFL is coming full circle. You come into the NFL needing to prove something ((Wilson was a third-round pick by Arizona in the 2001 draft and played sparingly his first season), reach lofty heights, then need to prove yourself all over again, whether you like it or not.
“I just don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anybody,” Wilson said. “Pro Bowls, first-team All-Pro’s – why do I have to prove anything to anybody? I just don’t feel like I have to do that.”
Wilson was among the NFL’s most dominant strong safeties for the better part of a decade, a five-time NFC Pro Bowl selection, three times All-Pro. He left the Arizona Cardinals for the New England Patriots last offseason, then missed the 2013 season with a foot problem.
Now he is back, released by the Patriots in April and signing with the Bears on June 23. He turns 35 in October and even with the forced year off that allowed the body to heal, he came into training camp in a full-on competition with a handful of players who, while solid in their own right, may never collectively achieve what Wilson has.
For Wilson, and by extension the Bears, all of the preseason games are potentially significant. The Bears want to know if Wilson can still run and hit at an elite level. Wilson does not like the prospect of needing to establish anything beyond what his career has done.
An added twist for Wilson is that the very thing veterans like least – training camp and meaningless preseason games – are precisely his best chance to extend an excellent career.
Wilson grudgingly acknowledged that preseason games are part of the evaluation.
“It’s the preseason, first game,” Wilson pointed out. “I know it’s part of the evaluation and everybody goes through it.”
Some just like it a lot less than others.