First Steven Jackson, now Adrian Wilson

Patrick Willis, Adrian Wilson and Steven Jackson defined toughness, physical play and intimidation in the NFC West when the division was known for none of those things.

It's only fitting Wilson and Jackson are leaving together.

While it's possible one or both could return to the division in some capacity, Wilson's release Friday and Jackson's decision to void his contract signal significant changes.

The timing feels right in both cases, even though it's tough to wave goodbye. Wilson is 33 years old, lost playing time last season and was scheduled to earn a $1 million roster bonus this offseason. The Cardinals have a new coaching staff and a plan to rely more heavily on younger players. Now is the time to move on from Wilson.

"Decisions like this are never easy, but it’s especially tough with someone like Adrian because he’s been such a special player and important part of this organization for the last 12 years," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said in a news release.

Wilson and Keim played at NC State at different times. Keim was with the Cardinals when the team drafted Wilson in 2001. If anyone would push for the Cardinals to keep Wilson, Keim would be the one. But he had to realize the move was coming sooner, not later, and that this was the right time to make a break.

"He and I have a long history, as many know," Keim said in the statement. "I had the privilege of meeting Adrian at North Carolina State when he was a 17-year-old freshman. It was obvious even then that his infectious smile and imposing stature could make him a star. His disruptive style meant opponents always had to know where No. 24 lined up, and the statistics illustrate all that he accomplished through his play on the field. Just as impressive, though, has been the leadership, discipline and determination he brought day in and day out, year in and year out."

I'll remember Wilson for putting huge, message-sending hits on Vernon Davis, Todd Heap, Trent Edwards and others. I'll remember him for delivering punishing hits to Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck during a 2008 game in Seattle. Hasselbeck appeared especially drained after the game. He accused Wilson of dirty tactics, then later apologized.

Five Pro Bowls and four All-Pro honors define Wilson as one of the most accomplished safeties of his era. Wilson played 181 games, fifth most in franchise history. He leaves the Cardinals having picked off 27 passes and collected 25.5 sacks. The latter total is the fourth most by a defensive back since sacks became a stat in 1982.

We can debate how effective Wilson was playing the run versus playing the pass, but that misses what Wilson represented in his essence. He was a 6-foot-3, 230-pound strong safety and a threat to injure anyone in his path. The hit he put on Edwards drew a $25,000 fine and would have been more appropriate in a 1976 game between Pittsburgh and Oakland. That was the point. Cardinals opponents had to fear Wilson. No more.