As we are close to the Patriots season opener against the Cardinals, it's time to look at a key match-up that could have a huge impact on the game on Sunday night. The Cardinals recently announced that rookie Brandon Williams had won the number two outside cornerback position, opposite of All-Pro Patrick Peterson. Williams, a third round rookie out of Texas A&M, in no way lacks the athleticism or size (5'11", 192 lbs) to be a successful cornerback in the NFL someday. But with only one full season of experience at the cornerback position under his belt, this is certainly an interesting decision.
Originally a running back who saw time at cornerback during his senior season with the Aggies, Williams is still rather raw at the position. He will have to step up for the Cardinals though, as their other cornerback options just aren't ready at the moment. Justin Bethel is currently dealing with a foot injury, Marcus Cooper just recently arrived to the team in a trade and Mike Jenkins tore his ACL. So whether or not Williams is actually ready to handle the responsibility with the little experience he has at the position, he will need to be ready on Sunday night.
Peterson is expected to cover Julian Edelman for the most of this game, as he often covers the opposing team's number one wide receiver. Head coach Bruce Arians said that Peterson will "be in a bunch of different places. There's not a guy that he's going to mirror all the time." So Williams may see some time against Edelman. But for the most part, expect him to be covering Chris Hogan a lot of the time and even Malcolm Mitchell (if he plays). If Mitchell is unable to suit up, Hogan is expected to function as the "X" wide receiver while Danny Amendola will man his usual "Y" spot and Edelman being used as the "Z" receiver.
Expect Williams to receive a lot of safety help as he may not be able to handle one-on-one coverage fully on his own. His scouting report on NFL.com reads, "Slow to process combo routes and find shifting zone responsibilities. Still learning to sit in receiver's pocket when he's pinned to the sideline." So Williams' best asset is his speed, while he does struggle with different wide receiver routes.
A wide receiver like Mitchell, who was drafted for his above-average route-running ability, could provide a challenge for Williams. From Mitchell's scouting report on NFL.com, "Route running shows promise. Smooth with change of direction and works back to the ball. Able to make sharp cuts out of breaks and does a nice job of selling double moves." So it seems as if Mitchell's ability to sell certain routes and also change direction easily could cause fits for Williams, who may be better suited for a straight-line route runner who relies more on their speed than route-running prowess.
Talking about Hogan, the other possible wide receiver Williams could be responsible for covering, NESN.com's Doug Kyed found that Hogan "doesn't have elite speed, but he did show an ability to separate from defenders on go routes" and "he does seem to excel at freelancing while running short routes in the middle of the field." While Hogan may not be the most complex of route-runners from this report, he has a knack for hiding his lack of top-end speed by using separation and his ability to run multiple routes. This could also provide a problem for Williams.
As mentioned above, Williams is expected to receive a lot of help from his safeties as his ability to handle one-on-one responsibilities may not be proficient enough against New England's wide receivers. With All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu expected to work on the same side of the field as Williams, it could provide some well needed relief for the rookie cornerback. While Mathieu does play safety in the Cardinals base 3-4 defense, he does also work as a cornerback in sub-packages. His versatility to play almost any position in the secondary, free and strong safety, outside and slot cornerback, will need to be utilized against the Patriots challenging wide receiver group. For Williams to have the caliber of player such as Mathieu helping him will certainly make his job easier, but not necessarily entirely easy.
As a very raw rookie cornerback with 4.37 speed but issues against proficient route-runners, Williams will have his hands full on Sunday night. With the Patriots down key members on their offensive line, superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski and starting quarterback Tom Brady, this weakness in the very stout Cardinals defense may be the one that needs to be exploited the most in order to succeed and have a chance of escaping with a victory. This will be a very interesting match-up to watch on Sunday night.