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FRISCO, TX — There's a lot of discussion surrounding who'll land the Dallas Cowboys' franchise tag in 2023, and rightfully so, with the nod likely going to running back Tony Pollard over tight end Dalton Schultz, though those aren't the only two who belong in that conversation — safety Donovan Wilson having earned a seat in that dialogue as well.
The problem in potentially tagging Wilson would be cost and, as such, it's much more prudent to try and get him on a new deal without a tag and before legal tampering gets underway on March 13. It's all still very much a business, though, and that means there's no guarantee Wilson is in Dallas when the 2023 season gets underway.
If he isn't, the Cowboys would need to act fast in locating a possible veteran replacement, but I'll spare you the clickbait and omit names like Jessie Bates, III and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, seeing as they're likely going to set the market at the position.
More realistically, given the current state of affairs at the position in Dallas, they'd need to peek behind Bates and Gardner-Johnson to see who's there.
It just so happens I've done the peeking for them.
Re-sign him, and do it the yesterday before yesterday's yesterday. I'm on record as being one who, from Day 1, believed Wilson had what it took to be a dominant player in the NFL (receipts available upon request), and he flashed his potential in his initial breakout season in 2020 — the former sixth-round pick's second year in the league.
He suffered a chest/pectoral injury in 2021 that held him to only three starts in nine games played but, fully healthy for 2022, he was a guided missile that exploded weekly for Dan Quinn and the Cowboys defense in every single outing (all 17 regular season games plus two playoff games). All Wilson did was everything — tackles (career-high and team-leading 101 combined), sacks (5), forced fumbles (2), fumble recovery (1) and an interception. Need I say more?
Another reason to hurry and secure Wilson, and preferably before he hits the open market and begins getting offers from other teams the Cowboys will have to bid against, is the looming status of Malik Hooker — another defensive leader and game-changer in the safety unit. Quiet as it's kept, Hooker is entering another contract season with the Cowboys, slated to be an unrestricted free agent in 2024 and, this time, with his stock having climbed over his last go at free agency.
Hooker signed on with Dallas in 2021, proved himself healthy and landed a two-year deal last offseason. Now the "green dot" player Quinn's defense (communicates Quinn's plays pre-snap), having registered career-highs in interceptions (3), tackles (77) while also delivering a defensive touchdown, I feel if there's a way to be proactive in adding years to Hooker's current deal, make it happen.
It's wonderfully true that the Cowboys have gone from a safety unit that could've perennially used some upgrading to one that's spilling over the cups and table with talent. But while that's been the case since the arrival of Quinn, the only way to keep the good times rolling is to continue to develop young talent while also recognizing the value of those atop the depth chart; and few are more valuable in Dallas' secondary than Kearse.
Similar to Hooker, however, Kearse will enter unrestricted free agency in 2024 if an extension isn't agreed to before next offseason and, also, similar to Hooker, he joined the Cowboys in 2021 on a one-year, prove-it deal that mushroomed into something special and, as such, a two-year extension signed in 2022. Kearse gutted through a knee and shoulder injury to play in 16 games (14 regular season, 2 postseason) and didn't lose a step. Just ask Tom Brady.
Markquese Bell + Israel Mukuamu:
While the Cowboys work to get things sorted with Wilson, primarily, and then potentially Hooker and Kearse at some point before this time next year, it's Bell and Mukuamu taking the lead as the developmental youth at the position, though the latter did show enough good things in his playoff stint at cornerback that might see him moved [back] to that position in training camp.
There are other up-and-comers to keep an eye on as well, e.g., Tyler Coyle, Sheldrick Redwine and Juanyeh Thomas, but they must first prove they can contribute on more than simply special teams to ascend from the team's practice squad. To avoid performing a hard reset at safety, proven, game-changing veterans need to be present and accounted for in Dallas.
What's Out There:
Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 15, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.
Here's one that isn't expected to break the bank in free agency, but could also carry a lot of value for a team/defensive coordinator who knows how to maximize what he brings to the table (last I checked, Quinn is rather good at doing exactly that). Amos is no stranger to providing snaps at either strong or free safety, whichever is needed, having played both roles in his time with the Green Bay Packers and, that means, for head coach Mike McCarthy as well.
McCarthy spent two seasons with Amos in Green Bay, and if the former feels the latter could also thrive under the tutelage of Quinn, Joe Whitt, Jr. (another former Packer) and Al Harris (yet another former Packer) — I hope you smell what The Rock is cooking here — then this move would make all the sense in the world to add an ultra-durable 29-year-old with 122 career starts, 10 career INTs and 636 career tackles.
Not entirely unlike Wilson, Poyer had to climb the ranks of the NFL from being a former late-round pick (7th round) to a starter in this league, and a damn good one, at that. His initial stint as a professional was with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, a First-Team All-Pac 12 out of Oregon State who garnered playing time as a rookie but was ultimately waived before being claimed by the Cleveland Browns that same season.
He'd spend several seasons in Ohio before eventually joining the Buffalo Bills in 2017, and that's where his career as one of the better strong safeties in football truly began. Poyer is coming off of a Pro Bowl season for head coach Sean McDermott, and if Wilson and the Cowboys do part ways, a deal given to Poyer would be money well-spent.
We're operating on the higher end of the salary spectrum at the moment, between Poyer and Rapp, but still below where the market-setters will land. For Rapp, a player the Cowboys know well considering they did a lot of homework on him ahead of the 2019 NFL Draft, it's all about flexibility, seeing as he has proven he can impact a game from either of the safety spots — spending much of his first two seasons with the Rams as a strong safety before getting a lot of run at free safety over the past two seasons.
He has an ability to take the ball away in either role, having already grabbed nine interceptions in four seasons (6 INTs since 2021); and when he's not coming down with the ball, he's making sure the intended receiver isn't, either (23 career pass break ups). He's definitely one to consider heavily if Wilson doesn't remain in a Cowboys uniform.
You're heard a metric ton about Jessie Bates, III, and rightfully so, but Bell deserves some roses as well for how well he's mostly complemented what Bates has accomplished. As far as the market goes, Bell should presumably be just a smidge less costly than Poyer and/or Rapp, but he brings much more experience to the table. The former second-round pick of the New Orleans Saints (2016) has 93 NFL starts under his belt as he enters Year 8 of his career, and Year 7 was the best season yet.
Bell inhaled four interceptions for the Bengals in 2022, tied for most on the team alongside Bates, but his 77 combined tackles from the strong safety position bested Bates and every other defensive player on the team in that category, while his two forced fumbles were second-most behind only superstart Trey Hendrickson. Another worthy free agency call if I've ever seen one.
Honorable mention: Andrew Adams
This one would be a bit more risky for the Cowboys, considering Adams is a 30-year-old journeyman who ended his season on injured reserve with the Tennessee Titans. That being said, he'd also come with the least-expensive salary ask, and though he had some struggles at times in his limited amount of time in Nashville, he also hit the ground running when he was activated by head coach Mike Vrabel from the Titans' practice squad in Week 4 — evidenced by his 76-yard pick-six in Week 5 against Matt Ryan.
He was both accountable for some key tackles/plays and some that were left on the field, so I'd view this more as a depth inquiry with a strong upside, as opposed to the other four free agents I've mentioned above who would, unequivocally, be viewed as and expected to be a dominant starter right out of the box and for some time to come. Still, Adams might be worth a look, as far as kicking some tires goes.