Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Cowboys Draft Profile - Rd 4, Pick #127 - Damien Wilson, LB, Minnesota

Now that the draft is over, let's study the selections the Cowboys made who we have not previously studied by giving them the same 200-snap treatment and try to see more on why Dallas found them worthy of selection when they did.
Find all the profiles here.
Damien Wilson, LB,  Minnesota - 6'0, 245 - Senior - 4.77 40 
There was a time in the not-too-distant past where the Cowboys had to play a game with multiple "street free agents" in the lineup at linebacker due to a real lack of depth.  Now, no disrespect intended to Ernie Sims and Brady Poppinga, but the 2012 season dissolved partially because when someone was injured and moved to the IR - Sean Lee and Bruce Carter that year - there were no suitable options on the roster, so the search for street free agents begins in earnest.  That season, Sims played more snaps (374) than all the linebackers besides DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, and Bruce Carter despite not being employed before Week 7.  That year, he was signed off his couch on October 24th, and then played 60 snaps in several different games as the team withered on the vine, partially to lack of NFL players on their roster.  Couch signings are very bad for teams that are serious about contending.
So, for the last few years, we have seen the Cowboys take linebackers in the 4th round in consecutive seasons to build NFL-ready depth.  The idea and philosophy is simple.  Linebacker is the Running back of the defense - but you need 3 starters instead of 1.  What does that mean?  It means that they should be understood to be somewhat fungible (to use a Jerry Jones term) or interchangeable assets.  It is a very physical position and if you look at positions on the field where most injuries occur and games are missed, look no further than linebacker.
You must have several capable LBs on your roster to avoid couch signings.  In a 4-3, you will have 3 starters, but you better assume the 3 reserves behind those starters will also play significantly.  Last year, 5 linebackers played over 200 snaps and a 6th, Lee, was on IR all season.   Almost no linebackers will be available for 16 games, so let's have 6 who we are fine with playing lots of downs.
This brings us to Damien Wilson, a player who was drafted to be one of those - like Hitchens last year, who may not be a NFL starter in year 1, but if developed properly he should be a starter down the road.  That is what you are looking for in Round 4, pick #127.  A player with developmental skills who is capable of being "coached up" and taught the NFL way so that when a player gets hurt, Wilson can run onto the field and fill the void.
He is a player who was not valued out of high school, went to Alcorn State for a year and than a community college for another before landing in Minnesota for 2013 and 2014.  There, he converted from DE to middle LB after dropping weight and became a "run and hit" LB.  That is best defined as a player who you can have cover targets (RB/TE) with effectiveness and  "keep clean" and allow him to diagnose and attack the play downhill with limited or no OL obstacles between him and the ball.  Easier said than done, of course, but that is the idea.
Wilson wears #5 and plays Middle Linebacker for the Golden Gophers and I looked hard at his games against Purdue, Nebraska, and Ohio State:
The play above was disallowed due to the offsides play, but focus on #5 jumping the route, making the play, and then hitting the turbo to head for the end zone. 
What I liked:   Wilson is a player who is always on the move and while he doesn't have a 40-time that separates him from his group, he does have an explosiveness on tape that does emerge when there is a play to be made.  He was amongst the leaders in the Big 10 (3rd) for total tackles with 119 and also produced 10.5 tackles for loss and even 4 sacks in 2014.  He plays every down for the Gophers which doesn't always translate to the NFL and the higher caliber athletes to deal with, but he is plenty athletic enough to be a 3rd down factor.  In fact, I would not be surprised if he is almost the opposite of most LBs, in that 3rd down might be his forte and what they had in mind when selecting him.  They are not populated with too many LBs who can run with TEs/RBs, so Wilson fills a spot that has been needed.  He has long arms and although he doesn't know what he is doing with them when it comes to shedding techniques, the Cowboys coaches are optimistic that they can clean up his technique to make him more effective in traffic.  However, he is tenacious and full of the type of characteristics you seek and should help the special teams immediately.

What I did not like:  There is generally a catch when you see many promising things and still get the player at #127.  For Wilson, I observed a few things that the Cowboys will need to get worked through as his career develops.  First, as I hinted at above, almost every time an offensive linemen got their hands on him, it was over.  He was unable to shed and disengage hardly ever.  This is clearly not ideal, but again, with his tools, you would hope this is fixable.  The other thing might require even more work - his instincts seem to betray him quite a bit.  Below, you can see one of many plays that were spotted where he seemed to bite hard on fakes, whether it was the zone-read game that Ohio State had (the play here resulted in JT Barrett running 86 yards for a touchdown) or play-action or just a simple run fake.  Play fast, but you also have to carry out your assignment.  Eat the cheese too much, and you get caught in the trap and if you are playing middle LB, then the middle of the field is exposed to a big play that can cost you the game.  He needs more eye discipline, but I think this comes with more understanding of offenses and film study.  Sometimes, one false step is all the opponent needs.
Summary:  They want athletes and bodies with upside to add all over the roster.  They clearly needed a LB and here is one who might actually project to the coveted "Will" LB spot rather than "Mike" as he played in college.  The Will is kept clean and able just to seek and destroy his man as a "run and hit" LB.  Wilson has some significant issues to work through, but the Cowboys are confident, given the success of the Anthony Hitchens 2014, that the coaches can get Wilson ready to roll in no time and perhaps reap the proceeds of his high upside.  This league requires LBs who can run and he has that ability and also other athletic attributes (long arms, impressive explosion) that lead you to believe he has a a chance to be a real value late in the 4th round.  In the meantime, they will count on him to be a key player on the punt and kick teams.
It will be interesting to see how he develops.
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