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Why Cowboys edge rusher Sam Williams could be in for a big season in 2023

Could the Cowboys finally cash in on a second-round gamble pick?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys love to take chances in the second round. This has been quite evident over the last decade as the team tends to go off-script and attempt to steal a talent who may have slid in the draft due to character or other concerns. The list is quite plentiful as it consists of several players who have athletic upside, but also enter the NFL with some baggage. This includes players like cornerback Kelvin Joseph (suspended for violating team rules), defensive tackle Trysten Hill (constantly in the doghouse at TCU), and who can forget edge rusher Randy Gregory (failing a drug test at the NFL combine).

The team’s most recent second-round gamble is Ole Miss edge rusher Sam Williams who was suspended his junior year after he was arrested on a felony charge. The charges were eventually dropped and he was reinstated a couple of months later. Williams was one of the team’s official 30 visits and obviously the Cowboys organization felt good enough about his character to make them their second-round selection in the 2022 NFL draft.

Coming out of college, Williams was a little bit of an enigma. Over his first two seasons at Mississippi, his production was modest. He was effective, but nothing that screamed superstar. However, during his final season, Williams was an absolute force. He lived in the backfield as he finished the year with four forced fumbles and 12.5 sacks. He was a splash-maker, even returning a fumble for a 33-yard touchdown.

Last year, Williams joined a Cowboys defensive line that was stacked with edge-rushing talent. With players like Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler, and Dorance Armstrong on the roster, it was hard to see where he would find work. And while all those guys were strong contributors (all four had at least six sacks last year), Williams was able to get some reps here and there. He finished with 273 total defensive snaps (24%) which was the fifth most for edge rushers behind the four players listed above.

While his time was limited, it didn’t stop him from making splash plays. Williams finished the season with four sacks, a forced fumble, and three fumble recoveries. But his splashiness wasn’t limited to just pass rush as the rookie did a remarkable job deciphering where running plays were going. He finished the season with 10 tackles for a loss, trailing only Parsons for the team lead. That’s remarkable if you consider his limited reps. Williams processed quickly and darted inside on many occasions bringing down running backs Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, and Jonathan Taylor in the backfield. And who can forget the body slam on Detroit running back Justin Jackson.

Williams has good length and converts speed to power very quickly. He can get around blockers, and he can bull rush through them. His high-energy play is one of the reasons he’s accrued so many splash plays this early in his career. He has violent hands and can line up everywhere, showing nice stutter-step footwork to out-finesse offensive linemen.

While many were thirsting for more reps from the rookie, it’s understandable why his playing time was a bit limited as there were some things to clean up. He’s a very aggressive player and sometimes a bit too aggressive. He was flagged for three unnecessary roughness penalties last year which was something that plagued him at Ole Miss. His six total penalties were the second most by any defensive player trailing only the mistake-prone Kelvin Joseph (eight total penalties).

Williams will enter a sophomore season with the same cast of veteran edge rushers ahead of him on the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be the low man on the totem pole this time around. With a stronger understanding of the game and some improved discipline, he has the skill set to be an impact player in this league. And with both Fowler and Armstrong being in the last year of their contract, the Cowboys should be looking to transition their young edge rusher into a larger role this season.

The Cowboys haven’t had a lot of luck with these second-round gamble picks, but not all of them have busted. We seem to remember a particular edge rusher from Boise State who entered the league with some character concerns only to turn into an All-Pro player who is the leader of this defense.

One big hit with Lawrence among several other whiffs doesn’t actually invoke optimism, but there are several signs that put Williams on the right path. His strong rookie season is one of them. Even the before-mentioned Lawrence had a much quieter rookie season playing in just seven regular season games because of injury where he never recorded a sack. Williams is off to a much better start.

Also, there is a noticeable second-year growth already being seen from Williams. Cowboys defensive line coach Aden Durde recently praised his young edge rusher for the work he’s put in away from the building and forming habits that are more likely to maximize his full potential.

“I see the work that he puts in and the structure that he’s put in off of the field. He comes in and you see his flexibility has changed, his coordination has changed, his stance is better. The things he’s needed to work on, he’s gone out and worked on and improved.

“I’m excited for him.”

The Cowboys didn’t select Georgia’s Nolan Smith when he fell in the draft. Part of that is because they love Mazi Smith, but you have to wonder if part of it also is that they strongly believe in what they have in Williams. With him already showing signs of improvement combined with another Dan Quinn training camp ahead of him, there are reasons to feel good about what we could see this upcoming season. He was getting first-team reps in minicamp last week and he’s already setting some personal goals for himself as this is what Williams said during Cowboys OTAs.

“Obviously, the team goal is to win a championship, but my personal goal and what I’m working towards is getting better with my hands, and I need 10 sacks.”

Lawrence is getting up there in age and the Cowboys would love to have another young edge-rushing star opposite Parsons. With refined movements, improved discipline, and the inevitably soon-to-be-coming more on-field opportunities, don’t be surprised if Williams emerges as one of the Cowboys' top defensive players in 2023.

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