FRISCO, Texas – Mississippi edge rusher Sam Williams is the Dallas Cowboys' latest second-round pick with an off-field issue, drafted Friday night just a few days after owner Jerry Jones said he was getting more conservative about such choices.
The Cowboys took Williams with the 56th overall pick in the draft after losing defensive end Randy Gregory to Denver in free agency when Dallas was confident it could re-sign the 2015 second-rounder.
Like Gregory coming out of Nebraska, Williams joins Dallas with a question about character. He was suspended at Ole Miss in July 2020 after being charged with sexual battery. Williams was reinstated two months later after the charge was dropped.
“It's the past. Obviously I didn't do anything,” Williams said. “It's a new life, just a whole new start ahead of me. And that's what I'm looking forward the most is a new start in a new area with great coaches, great teammates and my family.”
Last year, Dallas drafted cornerback Kelvin Joseph in the second round out of Kentucky, where he ended up after leaving LSU over off-field issues. Joseph is part of a Dallas police investigation into a fatal drive-by shooting in March.
Joseph's attorney has said his client was an unarmed passenger in the vehicle and “found himself in a situation that escalated without his knowledge or consent.” The NFL is investigating the case under its personal-conduct policy.
Asked before the draft about taking fewer risks more recently in 33 years as owner and general manager, Jones said, “That type of thing, that decision on off-the-field issues, I’m probably a little more conservative than I was 15 years ago.”
Pressed on how comfortable he was with the Joseph selection last year, Jones said, “Let’s be real clear, I haven’t said if I was comfortable or uncomfortable.”
Jones revisited those thoughts after drafting Williams, saying he felt he didn't have to take as many risks because scrutiny of players makes clubs more aware of off-field issues.
“The risks or the kinds of things that you should have been looking for 20, 30 years ago, you’re not even turning the lights on if you don’t look for that,” Jones said. “To sum it up, I’m confident when we know about a young man today coming in here that, boy, we’ve covered the ground and we’ve got it all out there. After having seen it all out there, we drafted Sam. And I’m confident we’ve got everything.”
Williams was a third-team All-American last season after setting an Ole Miss record with 12 1/2 sacks. He tied for 10th nationally with four forced fumbles.
The defensive pick by the Cowboys came after they took Tulsa offensive lineman Tyler Smith in the first round. Dallas drafted South Carolina receiver Jalen Tolbert with the 88th overall pick in the third round.
The Dallas defense had a dramatic turnaround under first-year coordinator Dan Quinn last season. The opportunistic unit led the NFL with 34 takeaways.
Williams could have a chance to start opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, a 2014 second-round choice who is returning on a reworked contract three years after signing a $105 million, five-year deal.
“They're going to get a player that wants to play, wants to win, wants to do his job, wants to go over and beyond,” Williams said. “I'm just ready. I can talk about it, but I'm just ready to show it.”
The Cowboys added free agent defensive end Dante Fowler, a 2015 first-rounder, and have high hopes for Dorance Armstrong after re-signing one of their fourth-round picks from 2018.
Williams joined Ole Miss after recording 17 1/2 sacks at Northeast Mississippi Community College in 2018. He led the Rebels in sacks his first year with six.
Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said he was comfortable with how Williams addressed the off-field issues.
“To see how he interacted with everybody, whether it’s teammates and how everybody went to bat for him,” McCarthy said. “Sam made a big impression on all of us. I think the thing that I appreciated the most is his honesty, his vulnerability that he expressed going through his history.”
Tolbert was the Sun Belt Conference player of the year last season after finishing sixth in FBS with 1,474 yards receiving while setting school record with 82 catches and eight touchdowns. He's the South Alabama career leader in catches (178) and yards (3,140).
Tolbert got a strong hint the Cowboys might take him when quarterback Dak Prescott called before the draft, and the pair had a 20-minute conversation revolving mostly around Xs and Os.
“For a minute it was like a surreal moment because I never knew quarterbacks would call prospects,” Tolbert said. “But it was an awesome, great experience.”