Safety Donovan Wilson is easily one of the Cowboys’ most important defensive players among their 2023 free agents. Bringing him back should be a goal, but that won’t be easy with the limitations imposed by the salary cap. Can Dallas afford to maintain the luxury of its three-headed beast at safety?
Along with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker, Wilson was part of a true safety trio in the Cowboys’ 2022 defense. Each guy played on at least 71% or more of the team’s defensive snaps last year, with Kearse often being used more like a linebacker in the nickel scheme. Of the three, Wilson played the most on 83.7% of the total defensive snaps, second only to CB Trevon Diggs on the entire defensive roster.
Wilson not only played the most of the safeties, but may have arguably been the best of the bunch. He led the team in tackles this year while adding five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception for impact plays. Hooker and Kearse were hardly slouches themselves. Hooker had three picks in 2022 and Kearse was third in tackles despite missing three games. All three had good years, hence why Dallas is facing a conundrum now with Wilson’s free agency.
Again, having three safeties of this caliber is a luxury. We know that well from the many years that Dallas has struggled to just find a solid starting duo at the position. Now with Wilson’s rookie contract expiring, can the Cowboys preserve this strength of their defense going forward?
Kearse and Hooker will already count about $10.5 million against the 2023 salary cap combined. With Wilson being the youngest of the pack and coming off a strong season, the market for him could be at least that much alone. The top 15 safety contracts in the NFL right now are averaging at least $10 million a year or more.
As a team that has historically not placed high value on the safety position, how much will Dallas compete with the market to keep Wilson? And if they are committed to bringing him back on a new deal, will they be happy having so much of their cap tied up in the position going forward?
Both Kearse and Hooker’s deals allow the Cowboys to recoup some cap space if they’re released or traded this offseason. Kearse’s scheduled $6.16 million salary cap hit would go down to just $1.75 million in dead money, creating $4.41 million in space. Hooker’s contract would only have $850k in dead money left, resulting in $3.47 million in cap space if released.
In terms of playing styles and defensive roles, Kearse and Wilson are more similar. Hooker is the true “free safety” of the group with the athleticism to roam the deep areas. Kearse and Wilson are both more “strong safeties” and spend more time closer to the line of scrimmage, either supporting the run, blitzing, or taking on tight ends and running backs in pass coverage.
Given this, plus his being the oldest of the trio and battling injuries last year, Kearse might make the most sense as the fall guy for Wilson’s return. But the veteran has also emerged as one of the true leaders on defense, both spiritually and in on-field coordination. For a team looking to push past the Divisional Round of the playoffs in 2023, the Cowboys can’t afford to lose too many of its “glue guys.” Kearse definitely qualifies.
That’s why this really comes down to how much Dallas has changed its feelings about the importance of the safety position. They lucked out in creating this current trio. Wilson was just a sixth-round pick, Kearse was a journeyman free agent who was barely expected to make the team in 2021, and Hooker was a reclamation project after struggling with injuries for his four years with Indianapolis. These were all dice rolls that worked out, not the expected outcomes on significant investments.
That creates the big question. The Cowboys didn’t have to spend much to form this trio, so how much will they now be willing to spend to preserve it? And if they feel strongly about keeping Donovan Wilson, are they willing to sacrifice Jayron Kearse or Malik Hooker to help fund that move?