As the backup safety with the most NFL experience, it figures that Wilson is the front-runner to replace Jones in the starting lineup for those first four games, if not the overwhelming favorite.
But regardless of what the Dolphins ultimately decide to do, Wilson should have a prominent role on the Dolphins defense. Wilson has done nothing but get better since arriving as a seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft, and there’s no reason to think he has reached his peak yet.
And that’s no matter whether he starts at safety or lines up in his customary spot as the nickel cornerback.
“Just trying to be the best player I can be and the best player for the Dolphins I can be and within our scheme,” Wilson said after practice Monday. “I just want to be a great teammate and I want to be a part of this organization when it gets back to its winning ways.
“I feel like I’ve established myself enough here to where the coaches, they’ll make sure they put me in a position to make plays.”
Wilson started three games last season when the Dolphins opened in a nickel defense — both meetings against the New England Patriots and against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He set career highs with 37 tackles, 36 of which were unassisted, and two interceptions. The first pick came in the final seconds of the home opener and clinched the victory against the Atlanta Falcons.
Beyond mere statistics, Wilson says he’s a much better than when he first joined the Dolphins.
“Leaps and bounds,” Wilson said. “When I first got here, I came on a lockout year. I was three years out of football before that. Only had six games from college. When I came in I was basically just playing raw. I had good coaches in Todd Bowles and Coach (Mike) Nolan that gave me confidence to go out there and make plays. But as soon as these coaches got here, it’s more technique-oriented and every year I’ve been with them, my technique has grown and grown. Last year I felt real comfortable and this year everything just slowed down for you.”
There’s another reason Wilson says he was able to enjoy a breakout season in 2013 when he also blocked a punt to tie the franchise career record with three.
And this one has nothing to do with football.
“I think I just became a better person outside of football,” Wilson said. “I’ve been hearing it from coaches for all my life. If I correct the things outside the field, I’ll be a great player. I just think that Coach (Joe) Philbin helped me get a better handle on how I should be treating things at home and dealing with my wife and my children and things like that. I fixed that part of my life and everything else came together on the football field.”
Wilson has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, and his wife is now expecting a son.
The one thing that hasn’t changed about Wilson from the time he joined the Dolphins is his competitiveness. That’s one of the things that jumped out at defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo after he joined Philbin’s staff in 2012.
“First and foremost, he’s a great competitor, A, 1A,” Anarumo said. “He’d give his right arm for the team and the way he plays with passion. We love everything about him when it comes to that standpoint. Secondly, he’s a great communicator. He’s probably one of the best communicators on the defense. As a safety back there, you’re controlling everything. You are making all the checks, making all the adjustments. You’re like the quarterback. You have to be vocal and he’s great at it. He’s a very instinctual football player.”
Wilson has shown those instincts the past three seasons and the Dolphins are hoping to see even more in 2014, no matter how they use him.
“We call him ‘Red Zone Jimmy’; now he’s expanding,” Anarumo said. “(We called him that) because that first year he made a bunch of plays down in that red area and that was one of the reasons why we were first in the league in red zone. Again, it goes back to being a great instinctual player and anticipating things. Like any position on the football field, if you’re aware and your instincts take over, you’re going to make plays.”