FOXBOROUGH — Bedecked from head to toe in red and blue, representing the colors of his new team, Aqib Talib smiled as he entered the Patriots locker room Thursday afternoon.
He saw the gaggle of reporters and cameras clustered in front of his locker, waiting to have their first chat with him since he joined the team. The cornerback was acquired from the Buccaneers in a Nov. 1 trade but wasn’t able to join the team until Monday after his NFL suspension for performance-enhancing substances ended.
As he slipped into the crowd, Talib asked how everyone was doing.
He talked for more than five minutes, and wanted to keep the discussion focused on football and not his checkered past, which includes the recent suspension, a previous one-game suspension for personal conduct, and several other off-field incidents.
Like most players that come to New England, especially those with notable events in their past, Talib’s main message was that he is here to help the team.
“I just want to come in and learn as quick as possible and work hard and see what I can do to help the team,” he said.
“I’m just coming in and doing what’s asked to be done; if it’s to help right away, then I’ll help right away.”
During his suspension, which began Oct. 13, Talib said he did his best to stay in shape, and now that he’s with the Patriots, he is coming in early and leaving late to learn the plays and the system.
But in his words, there are only about eight coverages a cornerback needs to know, and in his five years in the NFL, he said, he has played “almost every coverage.”
Talib is needed in the New England secondary, and he is arguably the best corner on his new team. The Patriots have struggled on the back end of the defense, and the acquisition of Talib, whose contract runs out at the end of this season, is a sign that Bill Belichick is pushing all of his chips to the center of the table for this year.
Though Talib’s relationships within the Buccaneers had become strained and he was not expected to remain with the club after this season, he did not see the trade coming.
“Until I was traded, I was a Buc, and now I’m a Patriot,” he said. “I’m just taking it one day at a time, one step at a time.
“You’re always surprised when you get traded. It’s football and I’ve seen it happen before, so I was surprised when it happened to me, but kind of not surprised.”
His teammates have embraced him, offering help for whatever he might need. Talib noted that “even Tom” approached him, referring to Tom Brady.
“They’ve been great,” he said. “I love the team already.”
Talib met Belichick during the pre-draft process in 2008, when he was coming out of Kansas, and also got to see the coach during training camp this season when the Patriots and Buccaneers held joint practices in Tampa before their preseason game. Talib remembered the sessions as competitive and fun, particularly since both teams had spent so much time to that point going against teammates.
Given his history, Talib was asked if Belichick told him he had a clean slate during their first sit-down.
“We just talked straight football,” said Talib. “He didn’t bring up the past. I didn’t bring up the past. He didn’t bring up the future. I didn’t bring up the future.”
They may have kept it to football, but whether it’s because he’ll need help quickly acclimating to the system or because of his history — perhaps both — the Patriots placed Talib’s locker next to that of Devin McCourty, moving rookie Tavon Wilson.
McCourty, aside from being very good at film study and is someone with a great deal of experience playing cornerback with the Patriots, is also a team captain and considered a high-character player.
Talib expressed excitement about being with New England when he arrived, and he reiterated that Thursday.
“I’m just excited to help, man,” he said. “I’m excited to be part of this organization, a great organization. I’m just excited Bill gave me the chance to come in here and help.”
Before wrapping up, Talib was asked how he describes himself off the field and whether he has been mischaracterized.
“I’m a competitor on the field, man, that’s kind of what we’re talking about right now — just football, man,” he said. “I mean, what happened in the past is in the past. I’m just looking forward to making the most of this opportunity and win some ballgames.”