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Progress Report

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Progress Report: Wilson Vital To Defense's Identity


(Editor's Note: NFL rosters change wildly from year to year. This year will be no different, as the Cowboys seek to upgrade their roster via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, a large percentage of their roster is already in place, and they'll have plenty of work to do to improve last season's 6-10 record. In the coming weeks, the staff of will evaluate those players who are already under contract, examining their past performance and future outlook. Today, we continue the series with safety Donovan Wilson.)

The Good: The Cowboys were ecstatic with Wilson's second season. The 2019 sixth-round pick primarily was a special teams contributor as a rookie, playing only 16 defensive snaps in 11 games. In 2020, he emerged as a productive starter on a defense in need of consistent playmakers. Promoted to the starting strong safety spot in Week 5 against the Giants, Wilson finished the season with the best overall defensive grade among all Cowboys defensive backs (72.0), according to Pro Football Focus. He had PFF's third-best defensive grade among players in the regular rotation, behind only DeMarcus Lawrence (88.6) and Randy Gregory (80.5). Despite only 10 starts, Wilson ranked fourth on defense in tackles (68) and pass breakups (4), tied for third in sacks (3.5), tied for second in interceptions (2) and forced fumbles (3) and tied for first in fumble recoveries (2). Most importantly, he brought a hard-hitting edge to the defense. With that tone set, the group played better down the stretch, forcing 12 turnovers in the final four games.

The Bad: Wilson's physical style of play near the line of scrimmage and in coverage is an important ingredient for the defense moving forward. If there's something to nitpick about his 2020 season, it's channeling that toughness and avoiding penalties. Wilson's three penalties this past season were for unnecessary roughness (twice) and lowering the head to initiate contact. To be clear, the 25-year-old safety is absolutely not a dirty player. He just can't let his aggressiveness get the best of him. One other note: better communication on the back end will be key for the entire Cowboys secondary. The defense actually allowed fewer explosive pass plays (20 yards or more) than in 2019, but they gave up at least one gain of 40-plus yards in eight games.

Best Of 2020: The Cowboys' 31-28 November road win over the Vikings was arguably the best game of Wilson's young career. He had nine tackles, a half-sack and two forced fumbles that led to 10 Cowboys points. Head coach Mike McCarthy said afterward, "He's a stud. I just love the way he plays. I'm so proud of him. Starting on special teams when he got here, now with this opportunity that he's earned, he brings it. … He's probably one of our best players going after the football. He's always on the football."

Contract Consideration: Wilson is still on his rookie contract for the next two seasons. He has a base salary of $850,000 for 2021, according to Spotrac.

What's Next: It's no secret the Cowboys have decisions to make on defense, including the future of the safety position. Starting free safety Xavier Woods is set to be a free agent in March. Whether or not Woods returns, the draft and/or free agency should provide options for depth and competition. Barring a significant offseason addition, though, Wilson likely showed enough in 10 starts to enter training camp as the starting strong safety for new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

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