FRISCO, Texas – He might be a forgotten starter, but he's a starter all the same.
In this pass-happy era of football, when NFL defenses routinely play with five and six defensive backs on the field, Damien Wilson tends to be a bit overlooked. Entering his third season, Wilson figures to be the Cowboys' starting strong side linebacker – it's just a matter of how much that gets him onto the field.
Taking over on the strong side in Week 6 last fall, Wilson played roughly 283 defensive snaps last season, or roughly 27 percent. By comparison, Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown played 61 percent and 66 percent of the Cowboys' snaps at various cornerback spots.
The changing nature of the game might require fewer three-linebacker formations, but that's no matter to the Cowboys. With how Wilson has progressed in the past year, the coaching staff is finding plenty for him to do.
"Right now, I'm playing every special team, starting SAM, backup WILL – and I'm playing the Deacon position," Wilson said.
Deacon essentially amounts to the Cowboys' dime package, which they employ in obvious passing situations. Last year saw them use three down linemen, with Sean Lee and Justin Durant operating in front of six defensive backs.
Wilson got some work there last year when Durant wasn't on the field, and he's using that to his advantage as he preps to be the Deacon in 2017.
"He's doing a good job," said linebackers coach Matt Eberflus. "You're asked to do a lot of things in there at that position – you're asked to cover, you're asked to rush, you're asked to play zone. You're asked to do all the things that a linebacker would do."
There was honestly hope that Wilson would be able to fill this utility role last year, if not for an unfortunate injury. To this point in his career, he might be remembered best for injuring his eye playing paintball – which kept him off the field for the duration of training camp.
"We as coaches thought that he had one of the better springs. He was really coming along, he was playing the Will, he was playing the Sam – and he was doing a really good job," Eberflus said. "We thought he was really going to take off. And then he had that incident, you know, he had an injury and wasn't able to work in training camp. So it kind of set him back a little bit."
In spite of that, it took Wilson just six weeks to get his crack at the defensive lineup in the 30-16 win against the Packers. From there, he averaged 26 defensive snaps per game, to go with 21 special teams snaps. Only Jeff Heath tallied more special teams snaps per week.
And from the sounds of it, Wilson can expect his workload to go up in Year 3.
"Every day, I've learned something new – so they put more on my plate, because they feel like I can handle it," he said.
On top of that, the Cowboys have to feel like they've found a decent insurance policy in Wilson – not to mention Anthony Hitchens, for that matter. All eyes will be on Jaylon Smith as the Cowboys get set to start training camp, as his health will determine a lot about this year's linebacker corps.
If need be, though, the Cowboys have found themselves quite the handyman.
"He's really made some leaps and bounds in terms of where he is – mentally where he is – in terms of learning all the positions," Eberflus said. "If you're not in the No. 1 or No. 2 linebacker spot, you're the starting SAM, you're going to have to learn multiple spots, just to cover ourselves. He's done a great job with that."