The re-signing of Donovan Wilson proves the Cowboys have changed their outlook on how valuable impact safeties truly are, but it's still important to spark competition this April
FRISCO, Texas — Don't look now, but the Dallas Cowboys have finally decided to up the value they place on the safety position and, because of that decision, they'll enter the 2023 season with (again) one of the best safety units in the entire NFL. That, of course, doesn't mean it's one that lacks a concern or two, and that's where the upcoming NFL Draft comes into play.
The top of the depth chart looks fantastic at the position, but things get shaky behind Donovan Wilson, Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse. Furthermore, it's an incoming class of safeties that provide value in every single round, and the Cowboys have to love that — especially considering how they usually attack the role in April.
What's more is that they don't have the dire need they once had, and that allows them to operate more … freely … in addressing the depth at the position, if you will.
Donovan Wilson — The headliner for this year's class of in-house free agents was, far and away, veteran safety Donovan Wilson. Some believed he'd depart Dallas after what amounted to a career season in 2023, one that was actually his second breakout year of his first four in the NFL, but it turned out he is exactly where he wanted to be and tied to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn — who has truly unlocked the elite potential in the former sixth-round pick. Wilson is the tone-setter for the entire defensive secondary, and losing him would've struck a mighty blow to the unit.
Malik Hooker, Jayron Kearse — In keeping Wilson onboard, the Cowboys kept their three-headed hydra at safety completely whole and intact, something that was openly celebrated by both Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse on social media following the re-signing. This duo deserves its own share of praise and roses though, and for a different reason, seeing as they signed prove-it deals to join the Cowboys initially and parlayed the opportunity into re-establishing themselves as critical NFL playmakers who deserved a second contract. But as they both enter a contract season in 2023, the young bunch behind them get the chance to try and make Dallas think long and hard about the future.
The Young Bunch — As it stands, there is no one behind the top three safeties on the roster in Dallas who can supplant the incumbent starters; and that means this offseason will put a lot of pressure on players like Markquese Bell, Tyler Coyle and Juanyeh Thomas (also Sheldrick Redwine) to take sizable steps forward in training camp. For not only are they competing against each other but, as noted, they're also competing for a chance to possibly succeed either Hooker or Kearse in the future, or to continue being relegated to special teams, the inactives list or the practice squad until/unless they do. Israel Mukuamu leads this bunch with both potential and active game reps, having also added value by showing he can play CB2 when called upon to do so.
Top 2023 Prospects:
Andrew Mukuba, Clemson — Don't get your hopes up about this one, because I'm admittedly giving him roses for being what I believe is the best of the safety class this year, and not because I believe the Cowboys have a shot (or a need) to go all the way up into the top 15 to get him (which is where I think he goes). Mukuba is a ball hawk with extra feathers, and one who plays with speed, quickness and a certain fluidity in his hips and feet that help him physically "outsmart" quarterbacks and receivers. You'd like to see him get a bit stronger, but that's what weight training is for.
Calen Bullock, USC — Though he's not the biggest one in the group, as far as mass goes, he's certainly one of the longest and if you know anything about Quinn, you know he loves his rubber bands. If Bullock slips for whatever reason, he might be available in the back half of the first round, but I don't believe he'd be on the board come Day 2. Elite change of direction combined with the ability (and willingness) get his head around adds to other attributes that make him enticing, but must be balanced with the fact his hands "panic" if he believes he's beat and that'll draw flags in the NFL. The latter can be coached out of him though, as can learning when to go for the big hit and when to break down for the sure tackle — my biggest concern with his game.
J.L. Skinner, Penn State — Let's drop out of the first and second round to see who should be available for the Cowboys on Day 3, which is where they've worked plenty of magic at the position before. After all, they used a sixth-round pick on Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier — turning both into NFL starters at one point — before then doing it again with Donovan Wilson; and while I don't believe Skinner will be available in the sixth, I think he might be in the fourth, and I'd love to add his ability to the roster with that kind of value. His fall would be solely due to a torn pec suffered in training this offseason, but he told me at the NFL Combine he'll be ready for training camp. He's explosive, an enforcer and a run-support specialist who chooses violence on every play, and that'll ingratiate him quickly behind Wilson and with the other Nittany Lion in Dallas (hi, Micah).
Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State — Hickman knows what it's like to step into one of the biggest stadiums in the country on a weekly basis and perform, and that should serve him well at the NFL level. As should the fact he's one of the better coverage safeties in this year's draft class, along with a 4.45s 40-yard dash speed and a wingspan that measures in the 83rd percentile. He's long, rangy, and fast, and once he begins to truly trust his instincts as opposed to second-guessing at times he'll truly see it all come together for him on the field. But, all told, he'd be a great call early on Day 3, especially since he also doesn't shy away from run defense or tackling.
Trey Dean, Florida — Speaking of someone who isn't shy about hitting a ball-carrier, this Gator has some serious bite. The fact he's in the 98th-percentile with his bench press explains why his hands are so violent in press coverage, routinely and easily knocking receivers off of their spot and out of their route timing on a regular basis. He's also far from small, standing at 6-foot-2 and weighing in over 200 pounds, so I could envision him getting some work as a big slot as well (shades of Jayron Kearse) to help with bigger tight ends. Much better in man coverage than in zone, using a fifth-rounder on Dean sounds about right, and is very near where the Cowboys like to operate in the draft at the position anyway.
Honorable mention: Christopher Smith II, Georgia