INDIANAPOLIS – The smile slides across Adrian Wilson’s face as he talks about his front office duties for his new NFL life for his old NFL team.
“(General Manager) Steve (Keim) calls me the vice president of stuff,” said the former Pro Bowl safety and member of the Cardinals’ Ring of Honor.
The business card simply reads “scout” for now. He went to this year’s Scouting combine for the first time since participating as a player back in 2001, as part of the Cardinals’ contingent. His job will evolve in time, but Wilson has begun Cardinals, Chapter Two.
Retirement officially came last offseason, and while that was difficult, Wilson believes he has found work in a place where he can excel.
“It’s a real passion for me,” Wilson said, “which is a little unexpected.”
What wasn’t unexpected was Wilson’s eye for scouting. He and Keim – whom Wilson has known since college, when Wilson was a skinny freshman and Keim was a strength coach at North Carolina State – frequently had discussions about players and their abilities over the years. It started when Wilson was first with the Cardinals and Keim was still just an area scout. As Wilson built his playing résumé and Keim rose up the Cards’ front office ladder, that didn’t change.
Once Wilson finally retired, Keim approached him with the possibility of getting into front office work. It wasn’t about the friendship. Wilson had shown Keim the capability to evaluate. More importantly to Keim, he wanted Wilson to find a way to channel his energy in his post-playing life, because not finding something can derail an ex-player on a personal level.
That didn’t mean Keim didn’t have some reservations, especially with an ex-player with the success Wilson forged.
“When you bring him in the building, OK, are certain tasks going to be beneath him (in his mind)?” Keim said. “I’m not going to bring him in here to be our vice president of player personnel. He’s going to learn the ropes. He’s going to have to drive some guys to the airport, he’s going to have to do some menial tasks that aren’t just watching tape and telling us what players can play. That comes with the job. I didn’t know how that would play out.”
What Keim found was that Wilson understood he needed to pay those dues. He spends hours watching video of both college prospects and pro free-agents-to-be, helping evaluations in both the college and pro personnel departments.
“I know I’m basically the lowest-tiered guy in the scouting department,” said Wilson, noting how much he leans on scouting
Wilson knows it’d be easy to think the team simply is doing Wilson a favor with a post-career job and paycheck.
“People think you are doing it just because you can and you’re not good at it,” said Wilson, who also worked the Senior Bowl. “That’s not the case with me because I’m very damn good at it.
“Yeah, I played at a high level as a player, but as a personnel guy, obviously you have to start low and work your way up. That’s what I plan on doing. They gave me quite a big workload this year, so I am learning. And I love it.”
Wilson isn’t the only ex-player in the Cardinals’ personnel department. Director of pro scouting Quentin Harris played safety for the Cardinals as well, and assistant director of pro scouting Malik Boyd played in the league. Area scout Josh Scobey, a former running back, is like Harris a former Cardinals teammate of Wilson.
Keim said there are plenty of quality scouts who didn’t play in the NFL but it doesn’t hurt to have that background when deciphering whether a guy might be able to play in the league.
With Wilson specifically, the drive to be good in personnel evaluation is much like his drive to be a Pro Bowl player.
“He doesn’t come down here and hover around my office like some could and politick,” Keim said. “He sits over there and keeps to himself. He’s so prideful and so passionate about this, he doesn’t want anyone to think he got this because of our relationship and I appreciate that.
“He’s attacking this like he attacked being a player. Work ethic, keeping his mouth shut, being humble. He has natural instincts for that, which not many have. He works his tail off. And he’s confident in his opinions.”
The scene at the NFL Scouting combine is so much different now than when Wilson last was part of it. He remembers a much more simple event, one without so much media or NFL Network coverage.
Then again, his life is pretty different too. The goal no longer is to be one of the best players. It’s about being one of the best in the front office.
“You get into this business to get to the pinnacle of your profession regardless of what it is,” Wilson said. “If you’re a player or a coach, it’s the Super Bowl. If you are a scout, you want to be a GM one day. You want to get better every year and you want to show your value to the club. That’s what I am currently doing.”