Less than two years ago, Donovan Wilson was seen as one of the emerging stars on the Cowboys defense. But after injuries limited him last season and helped cost him a starting role, Wilson is now dealing with challenging circumstances in the final year of his rookie contract.
Wilson closed out 2020 on a high note. The former 6th-round pick had taken over as a starter and had two interceptions in the Cowboys’ final three games. He also finished that year with 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, developing the reputation as a budding play-maker and big-hitting safety.
Donovan battled a groin injury the following offseason and missed much of training camp and the preseason. He resumed his starting role for the Cowboys’ season opener but aggravated the issue further, missing the next four games.
That absence led to Jayron Kearse’s breakout as a defensive leader in 2021. The veteran got his first start with Dallas in Week 2 and never looked back. Once Wilson was healthy enough to play again he was relegated to being Kearse’s backup.
Kearse is back on a new two-year, $10 million contract to resume his duties as a starting safety. Dallas also re-signed Malik Hooker to a two-year deal worth $8 million, strongly suggesting that they intend for him to be the other starter.
Even without Hooker in the mix, Wilson wouldn’t really work as a starter next to Kearse. Both are traditional strong safeties without the athleticism to consistently succeed further away from the box.
Wilson’s best chance at playing time in 2022, other than injuries, is when Kearse plays more of a hybrid linebacker role in certain packages. This worked for Donovan last year when Micah Parsons was forced into heavy pass-rushing usage, shifting Kearse’s role and opening up a spot for Wilson on the field.
Parsons will certainly still get his shots at opposing quarterbacks, but Dallas has loaded up on pass rushers with the re-signing of Dorance Armstrong and offseason additions Dante Fowler and rookie De Williams. If Micah is able to play more of his traditional LB role in 2022, that could mean less reps for Wilson.
Donovan’s strengths make him a great backup to Jayron and rotating option when the Cowboys go into different schemes, but Hooker is going to be the starting free safety. That’s a tough spot for Wilson with free agency looming in 2023.
Not only might he be stuck on the bench for much of the upcoming season but Wilson will turn 28 next February. He’s on the older side for a guy entering just his fourth NFL season and, unfortunately, that will only further complicate things for him in next year’s free agent market.
Circumstances just haven’t been kind for Donovan Wilson since his seeming breakout in 2020. Of course, you never know how the chips might fall for him this season. But with his rookie contract expiring, Wilson has to capitalize on every single opportunity to restore his career’s momentum.