The story all offseason for the Cowboys revolved around upgrading the safety position after many grew tired of Jeff Heath’s inconsistency at the position. After missing on Earl Thomas and others, Dallas brought in George Iloka and seemed ready to draft someone with their first pick. But they surprisingly passed on big names like Juan Thornhill, Taylor Rapp, and Nassir Adderley in favor of Trysten Hill.
But the Cowboys found a safety in the sixth round in former Texas A&M captain Donovan Wilson. As detailed in the scouting report on Wilson after the draft, he’s a violent thumper who has shown flashes of ball-hawk skills, has experience playing slot cornerback in college, and has a great football IQ, although he needs to become more disciplined in his play. Under the tutelage of Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard, though, Wilson should be able to refine his skills quickly, leading to this bold prediction: Wilson will be the starting strong safety by the end of the year.
Of course, it wouldn’t be unheard of for the Cowboys to have a sixth round safety become a contributor in their rookie year. Xavier Woods was pushed into slot cornerback duties in 2017 due to injuries and he flashed so much potential that he was relied on as the starting free safety heading into 2018, a role in which he thrived. Kavon Frazier was a sixth-round pick in 2016 and quickly became a contributor on special teams, racking up the third most special teams tackles for Dallas as a rookie. Then, in 2017, Frazier found himself in a rotation with Heath at strong safety before starting in 2018 while Woods was out with an injury.
And of course there’s Heath himself, who wasn’t even drafted back in 2013 but has made an impact on both special teams and in the secondary, despite some clear limitations and occasional competition.
Dallas isn’t opposed to giving someone like Wilson a big role right away, as long as Wilson can show that he’s deserving of it. And as luck would have it, Wilson has been turning heads thus far in OTA’s and minicamp practices:
Wilson’s pick to end practice was easily the play of the day for me.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) June 11, 2019
The rookie darted from the numbers to the sideline after reading Rush’s throw. Dove at the sideline to come down with the INT, which the ref ruled a catch.
Given Wilson’s reputation - for better or worse - as a big hitter, it can be hard to stand out in non-contact practices, but Wilson has done so by showing off the ball-hawk skills that snagged him 13 interceptions in his senior year of high school and eight interceptions in his three years playing at Texas A&M. The Cowboys coaches know he can lay the lumber, and that’ll no doubt become clear once preseason games arrive, so seeing Wilson also make plays in coverage right now has to be catching some eyes.
Wilson is also benefiting from - and capitalizing on - Frazier missing time due to an injury. While Frazier missed all of the minicamp practices, he’s expected to be back for training camp. In the meantime, though, Wilson has been getting reps with the second team that otherwise would have gone to Frazier. Marinelli has even commented on the potential he sees in Wilson:
“He’s got a chance to be a very physical presence, but right now, it’s about, ‘Where do I line up? What’s my assignment? Where do I look?’
”Our mindset is to get him prepared to know what the movement is, the skill is, and what the drills and assignments are. You’re investing a lot of money in these guys. I have to find ways--can he do what I want him to do,” Marinelli said.
And while Heath has continued to get first team reps despite many thinking Iloka would overtake him, it suddenly complicates Iloka’s role with the team. If Wilson continues to impress, especially in preseason games when he can showcase his hitting skills, could the Cowboys opt to cut Iloka loose with confidence in Wilson? Iloka’s team-friendly deal (Dallas is only on the hook for $300,000) certainly allows for it.
At which point Wilson would become a prime candidate to work in a rotation similar to what Frazier and Woods saw in 2017, and if Heath’s trend of declining as the season goes on (in each of the last two years, Heath’s tackles have drastically decreased after Week 12) continues, that would leave the door open for Wilson to flash just enough potential to solidify himself as the starting safety.
While this is admittedly dependent on a lot of different things happening - hence it being called a bold prediction - the reality is that Richard is looking to find his Kam Chancellor in this secondary; that is, a hard-hitting safety who can manage coverage responsibilities in shallow zones and Cover 2 or Cover 3 shells. Based on what we’ve seen from Wilson thus far, he has the potential to be just that. And if given the opportunity in 2019, Wilson will capitalize on it in a big way.