In his Thursday press conference, Jason Garret confirmed that Damien Wilson was now starting as the strong-side outside linebacker, or “Sam,” in the Cowboys base defense.
Wilson, a fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, was active in all 16 games last season but played a minimal role. His second season started with some difficulty due to an eye injury suffered from playing paintball.
Before that injury occurred, though, Wilson was already winning his head coach over.
“[Wilson] had a really good spring. He came back and did some really good things right at the outset of our offseason program.”
Wilson’s eye injury occurred between those practices and the start of the Cowboys training camp. Garrett said that the eye injury did cause Wilson to fall behind other linebackers in Oxnard, but then explained how he’s been able to move back up the depth chart.
He’s made a lot of strides from Year One to Year Two… He’s got a lot of physical ability. He plays with the right kind of demeanor, the right kind of physicalness. You see him minimizing his mistakes more the more he plays. You see him making more plays.
With how much the Cowboys utilize their nickel package, which doesn’t utilize the Sam linebacker, you can barely call Wilson a “starter.” He will play far fewer snaps than Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens. However, the youngster’s ascension over veterans Kyle Wilber, Andrew Gachkar, and Justin Durant is noteworthy.
The last memory of Damien Wilson from 2015 was a bad one. He blew a coverage assignment against the New Orleans Saints that allowed C.J. Spiller to score a game-winning touchdown in overtime. Wilson can be seen trailing Spiller all the way up the field.
We barely saw Wilson again after that Week 4 loss. The rookie returned to a minimal bench role and remained there all season. He clearly has made some great improvement to be earning so much praise, and a starting role, in 2016.
If Damien Wilson can hold down that Sam spot and continue to develop it will be a major benefit to the Cowboys in years to come. Dallas will have stability at both outside linebackers positions, needing only find an answer in the middle. Anthony Hitchens is solid but not the kind of play-maker they want. We are still waiting to see if rookie Jaylon Smith will ever been healthy enough to play.
The Cowboys’ 2015 draft class was defense focused; Wilson was one of five defenders taken in the first six picks. Byron Jones has delivered but injuries and other issues have held back Randy Gregory and Mark Nzeocha. Ryan Russell is no longer with the team.
Damien Wilson emerging a multi-year starter would be a fine outcome for a fourth-round pick. It would also helped improve the final grade on a draft class that is struggling overall.
Hopefully, Wilson will be hearing his head coach say many more nice things about him.