When James Wiggins got the call from the Arizona Cardinals last week, the 2021 seventh-round draft pick quickly realized he would be joining an organization that drafted three players the safety has modeled his game after.
While Wiggins missed out on learning from the likes of former Cardinals Antrel Rolle and Tyrann Mathieu, 2020 All-Pro Budda Baker will have him more than covered.
For Wiggins, it’s like going to work with that one big-time celebrity you follow. Once that first whistle blows, though, he knows there’s business to tend to.
“My mindset is to try not to be starstruck that first moment I meet him because it’s like, ‘Man, you’re the G.O.A.T at the safety position here. It’s an honor to be in your presence but also I get to learn from you,’” Wiggins said Thursday.
“That’s what I’m excited about. Just to take in all the knowledge that he teaches me and watching how he plays the game and why he does it until I understand that. Hopefully I can play like him or better.”
Those are obviously large shoes to fill for Wiggins, who heads to Arizona after three seasons as a Cincinnati Bearcat. In 32 career games, Wiggins recorded five interceptions, 11 pass deflections and 87 tackles.
The NFL learning curve is a beast in its own right, but the newest Cardinals safety feels he can complement Baker’s already impressive game.
“To be honest, it’s just my style of play with Budda, we can disguise more. He can cover, I can cover, so … me and him can mix it up and stuff like that,” Wiggins said. “Being able to play with him, I think we can bring that to the table.
“To confuse the quarterback so he can’t get that pre-snap read of what we’re doing as a defense. Next thing you know, me and him are blitzing or coming off the edge or inside the A-gap and getting a sack or a turnover.”
Wiggins was one of three defensive backs taken by the Cardinals in this year’s draft, all of which were Day 3 selections. The safety believes Arizona made the smart moves, considering the trio as the biggest steals of the draft.
His time to prove other teams wrong may not come right away, however, as Wiggins is sequestered behind Baker and Jalen Thompson on the depth chart. Free agent addition Shawn Williams, plus Deionte Thompson, Chris Banjo and Charles Washington round out the rest of the safety room.
Wiggins could immediately butter his bread on special teams, something general manager Steve Keim pointed to after taking the safety in the seventh round.
“Special teams is a part of the game,” Wiggins said. “I know I want to be in the starting lineup, but also to get to that point you have to be a dog on special teams.
“I think the most important thing [on special teams] is effort,” he added. “It’s one play, you just go balls to the wall, really. That’s all there is to it. … Just know what you’re doing and your effort.”
As a return man in 2018, Wiggins took back 13 kicks for 272 yards (20.9 yards per return). Keim believes Wiggins can play all four core special teams positions and can hopefully develop into a starter with his speed and athleticism.
But that starts in the offseason, with conditioning, staying healthy and studying your playbook key factors in staying lockstep with the competition come training camp.
“It’s the best feeling for a coach to bring in a rookie who knows most of the stuff and the only thing he has to do is critique him a little bit,” Wiggins said.
“That’s just what I’m doing really, staying in my playbook as much as I can, so when I get there there’s not much you can teach me. It’s just playing ball now.”