Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Damien Wilson is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. With the circumstances now facing him in Dallas, Wilson could have a frustrating year before he heads into free agency.
No doubt, Wilson saw the big contract that Anthony Hitchens got last March from the Kansas City Chiefs and got excited. They're not that different; both Hitchens and Wilson were mid-round picks who rose into starting roles with the Cowboys. Neither is a star, but both have been solid.
But while Hitchens got lots of playing time last year as the starting middle linebacker, plus with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith's health issues, Wilson goes into 2018 with potentially less opportunity to get on the field.
Lee and Smith are back, of course, and there are high hopes that Jaylon will finally be the full-time stud the Cowboys have hoped for since he was drafted in 2016. And as long as he stays healthy, Sean Lee rarely comes out of the game.
With Vander Esch joining the ranks, it's highly probable that Wilson will be dropped down into a reserve role. Leighton is expected to take over as the middle linebacker, with Jaylon Smith moving into the SAM role that Wilson has occupied since the middle of 2016.
Damien will remain a key reserve and perhaps rotation player at times, but he could become far less visible this year than the last two seasons. That's an unwelcome prospect for a guy about to hit the open market.
Unfortunately for Wilson, it may mean having to rely on teammate injuries to get that precious playing time.
Damien already dealt with not being a full starter, with the SAM role in the base defense only being used partially. Like most NFL teams Dallas used their pass-focused nickel formation more than any other last year.
The two linebackers on the field will likely be Lee and Smith. Vander Esch scouts as a good pass defender, so he should get in the mix a lot. Once again, Damien Wilson is on the outside looking in.
Wilson's had to fight since he entered the NFL. Most fourth-round picks don't become starters in their second year, if ever. So this adversity shouldn't get Damien down.
At the least, Wilson will be a valuable depth option for the Cowboys in 2018. Time will tell if he gets the chance to be more.