DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys have made their first big maneuvers of the offseason on the second day of the tampering period that ignites the NFL offseason transaction period. The first moves in free agency, to no one’s surprise, was re-signing their own players.
The team kept safety Donovan Wilson on a three-year deal, worth up to $24 million with $13.5 million guaranteed over the first two years. In addition, former first-round linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was brought back on a two-year contract worth $11 million.
The signings represent solid deals for two draftees who both became important performers on the Cowboys’ defense. The contracts also should work out well for Dallas, as they didn’t break the bank for the 28-year old play-making safety Wilson, nor Vander Esch, who shores up a thin area on the roster.
After taking care of a couple of their own, Dallas next parlayed one of their compensation draft picks to acquire a player meant to enhance the secondary. In exchange for a 5th-rounder, the Cowboys landed two-time All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore from the Indianapolis Colts.
NEW #Cowboys CB Stephon Gilmore in 2022 via @PFF:
92nd percentile coverage grade.
93rd percentile coverage grade in single coverage.
98th percentile coverage grade in the slot.
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) March 14, 2023
Gilmore, the 2019 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year, comes to Dallas to fit in opposite top corner Trevon Diggs to give the Cowboys another cover man after the position was decimated by injuries during the 2022 campaign. With Gilmore in the mix, the Cowboys suddenly have a solid stable of cornerbacks with standout rookie DaRon Bland an option to cover the slot.
Wilson, meanwhile, entrenched himself as starter in his second season under former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan back in 2020 but has taken his game to another level under current DC Dan Quinn. Last year was Wilson’s best as he led Dallas’ defense in tackles – breaking the century mark at 101 – while also adding a career-high five sacks, tops among safeties across the NFL.
In the last three years, Wilson has been responsible for 11 turnovers, second only to Diggs. His hard-hitting style has made him one of the enforcers on the Cowboys’ defense and now he will return with the hopes of building on his big season.
Wilson has become a big part of the defensive turnaround in Dallas, where he plays at all three levels. Quinn utilizes Wilson as an effective blitzer, as a pseudo linebacker, where Wilson led all safeties in run stops with 40, and he has the ability to mark his man in coverage. There aren’t many safeties doing as much for their defense as the Cowboys ask of Wilson.
Wilson was a priority free agent for the Cowboys, and his re-signing will keep their three-headed safety monster intact. In joining fellow safeties Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker, both of whom got new deals last offseason, Wilson completes the best safety group the defense has had at the position in some time. It could also be argued that they form the best safety trio in the league.
Jayron Kearse: 77 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 5 passes defended, 1 int.
Donovan Wilson: 101 tackles, 5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 2 passes defended, 1 int.
Malik Hooker: 62 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 3 passes defended, 3 int.
— NICK (@nickC0711) March 14, 2023
All three safeties are now signed at least through 2023 and the Cowboys have covered themselves in case Kearse or Hooker aren’t retained after this season. Meanwhile, with Gilmore likely starting opposite Diggs, Dallas won’t be as pressed to retain free agent Anthony Brown if the financials don’t make sense with Jourdan Lewis, Nahshon Wright, and Kelvin Joseph providing depth at the position.
With Wilson returning, and with Gilmore joining the roster, the Cowboys have different ways that they can utilize their depth in the secondary. Third year safety Israel Mukuamu showed enough to earn more opportunities after last season, and he can continue to take snaps from the hybrid CB/Safety type of role that he’s more suited for. The team felt more comfortable with this alignment, which gives Mukuamu another year to develop.
The 27-year old Vander Esch returns after enjoying a Pro Bowl season for the Cowboys as a rookie before injuries piled up in the subsequent years. Healthy again, the former Boise State Bronco had his best season in four years with 90 tackles, four tackles for a loss, a sack, and a forced fumble as he spent most of his time sniffing out the opposing ground game.
The Cowboys currently don’t have much in the way of depth at linebacker so bringing back Vander Esch became paramount. With Micah Parsons focusing more on disrupting the quarterback, Vander Esch was counted on to make the tough tackles in the middle of the field.
Rookie linebacker Damone Clark had a solid debut campaign, but second year player Jabril Cox didn’t take the step forward that the Cowboys were expecting in 2022 so, even with Vander Esch returning, linebacker could be an area that Dallas looks to keep making additions or a position to keep an eye on at the NFL Draft.
The team wanted Wilson and Vander Esch back for continuity on a stellar defense and needed someone to pair with Diggs. With the moves made on Tuesday, Dallas keeps key parts of its defense while bolstering their ability in pass coverage as they try to lead the league in turnovers for a third straight season.
In a twist, what appeared to be another example of the Cowboys merely taking care of their own in free agency became a rare example of the team taking in an exciting external talent.