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Adrian Wilson eager to come home, and to "grow and learn"


INDIANAPOLIS — Adrian Wilson has a few ideas about the kind of players he wants to help the Panthers find. When he starts rattling off qualities, that list starts to sound a little like Wilson himself.

And as soon as he gets into his email, he can start to work on finding them.

The longtime Cardinals safety and executive (and native of High Point, N.C.) joined the Panthers here at the combine this week and was still going through some of the IT training and onboarding on Tuesday so that he can get right to work. He joined the team Monday as vice president of player personnel. He'll work alongside general manager Scott Fitterer and assistant GM Dan Morgan, contributing on both the pro and college scouting sides.

"I think, obviously, it was an opportunity for me to go back home," Wilson said after he got his laptop set up. "Obviously, that was key in terms of my next steps. You know, it was an opportunity for me to grow and learn something new and different.

"That's really the two things that really stood out about opportunity was my ability to go back home, see my mom see my dad, just being able to be an hour and 30 minutes away from them. And then just working with Scott and Dan. Those are good guys to be around. And just trying to win."

Wilson knows a lot about the area from growing up in North Carolina and playing at N.C. State, and has seen a lot of the Panthers over the years. He's been involved in some big games against them as a player in his 12 years with the Cardinals and was back as a scout in 2015 when they played in the NFC Championship Game.

He laughs when he thinks about those memories and knows that not all of his relatives who were in Bank of America Stadium that day were pulling for his team to win.

"All my family was at that game," Wilson said. "My whole family's Panthers fans, so they definitely wanted to see me back there at some point. Obviously, I didn't make any promises. Now, I'm pretty sure they'll enjoy it for sure."

For the last few decades, they had to politely pretend to be Cardinals fans. Wilson played in Arizona for 12 years, developing a reputation as a hard-hitting game-changer. When he talks about the "physicality" he remembers from his games against the Panthers as a player, there's a nod of respect because that's how he played.

Morgan, his new co-worker, was one of those he remembered the most from his playing days, but a few of the guys on the current roster have already caught his eye. He said he started doing a "deep dive" on their personnel last week.

"The thing that probably stood out the most is youth; they're very youthful on both sides of the ball," Wilson said. "I think they have a great way of being physical and gritty.

"All those things kind of stood out to me because that's who I am as a person. That's what I was as a player. So those things for me really stood out."

Adrian Wilson

From his time with the Cardinals, he watched the emergence of Budda Baker as one of the top safeties in the league, seeing a lot of those same characteristics. (Baker made the Pro Bowl as a special teamer his rookie year, and for his defensive emergence in 2020) So when Wilson talks about traits he's looking for in players, he has plenty of good examples.

"That's what I'm bringing to the team is that viewpoint of what I think the player is," he said. "How often when you look at Budda, you're like, 'this guy reminds me of me.' And I think a guy like Jeremy Chinn is evolving into a similar type of player as I was when I was playing."

Having that former player's mindset also changes the way he scouts players. He and Morgan have six Pro Bowls between them (Wilson five, Morgan one), so the personnel department has a blend of scouting experience and on-field insight, which he thinks helps.

"I think it's just some of the small nuances, inside of the game, that maybe we see that other people may not see," Wilson said. "Whether it's the scheme, I just feel like we're quick to identify those things."

Adrian Wilson

And when his playing days were done, it didn't take him long to identify that his path was in personnel rather than coaching. Former Cardinals coach Bruce Arians offered him a hybrid role at first, but the combination of his own skill for evaluating and the quest for more normal hours led him back to the personnel side. He wasn't present for the births of his first three children, so the chance to be in the room when his youngest, Carter was born helped him solidify that decision.

Wilson was promoted to director of pro scouting in 2019 and finished up last year as the interim co-GM after Steve Keim stepped away from the team. But when the Cardinals opted to hire Monti Ossenfort as GM this offseason (Wilson interviewed), he thought it was best to move on.

"When I take a step back and look at the big picture of it all, even though I've had GM interviews in the past and done all of those things, it's the experience of I think that that that you need to gain," Wilson said. "You need to gain experience outside of what you already know. I'm very headstrong about gaining that experience, gaining that knowledge. And just trying to broaden my scope of how I see things. And I think it's a great opportunity here to do that with Scott."

But while his own playing days shaped his view of players, he also admits he's evolved over the years and has changed the way he thinks about putting together an entire roster.

"When I first started scouting, I was hard on players," he said. "Like, I was really hard on them. You know, everybody's not Patrick Mahomes. Everybody's not Tyreek Hill, those types of guys.

"So a lot of guys that are probably not high-caliber type players, they play every Sunday. So those are the things that I had to learn. Every single year those guys are getting written off. And you look at them and say, 'Oh, those guys can't play?' You learn to see how somebody can have a role. They have a role on the team for sure, and finding that guy for that role, that's how you get better."

View throwback photos of linebacker Jeremy Chinn at the 2020 NFL Combine.