This draft has been a quintessential Belichick performance. A potential reach for a defensive back in the 2nd round? Check. Drafting at positions of apparent strength? Check. Drafting regardless of positional value? Check. Drafting pure special teamers a bit too high? Of course. Drafting questionably early and seizing superior paper value later on? You know it.
Let’s continue breaking down the Patriots’ draft with the aforementioned DB.
45th Overall: Joejuan Willams, CB
Belichick just can’t help himself. Despite the elite combination of depth and talent in the secondary he seems to view selecting controversial second round DB’s as sacrosanct. Perhaps a part of the deal he struck with Satan to get Tom Brady in the sixth? I’d buy it.
What I Like
The first thing that stands out is the most obvious. Williams is massive for a player of his position. His height and weight are in the 95+ percentile and his arm length, hands and wingspan all in the 85+ percentile. If you were designing a corner in a lab to match up with big receivers and tight ends it would look exactly like the Vanderbilt product.
The second thing to stand out is his attitude: he’s got the Ramsey/Sherman swagger, you know, the loud hyper confidence that borders on arrogance. Here is the thing though. If there was one position I could pick where cockiness is an advantage it would be cornerback. Every corner gets burned but the best corners have the memory of a gnat. Williams is not going to be intimidated by anyone which is the perfect attitude for a corner and a great mentality to bring to the defense.
Williams is also my favorite type of corner — a guy who excels at physical press-man coverage. Good press-man corners are hard to find but they also tend to be the types of corners receiver dread the most. Vanderbilt used Williams all over the place to help disguise their coverage's, something Belichick will almost certainly like to do as well.
Another thing to like is that Williams played against SEC competition. If you are projecting to the NFL SEC competition is the best to play against. And Williams did not simply play against the best he put the Fear of God in them. There were games where teams just flat out avoided Williams’ side of the field. I think tackling and run support are overvalued traits in corners but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. Williams is a good tackler and happy to play run support. Williams is also reportedly big into film which is a trait I value significantly.
There were numerous media draftniks who said that Williams was being slept on and that he was the best cornerback prospect in the draft, albeit in a class without a lot of great corners. The scuttlebutt is that the Patriots considered taking Williams at #32, and since we know they traded up to get him, I am inclined to believe the rumor they had a first round value on him. I think the best case scenario would be a unicorn player who can successfully cover most receivers AND tight ends at a high level.
What Concerns Me
The first is the context of the pick. The Patriots passed on numerous talented players at positions of need, and gave up valuable draft capital, to draft a player for a position with no pressing need. None of that matters if he is a good player but it will rub salt in the wound if he is not. The other issue is the widely varying grades on Williams. For every one draftnik with a first-round grade on Williams, there were several others who had him graded as a day three talent. If he busts this will look like a classic second round defensive back reach.
If I had to pick my biggest concern of Williams it would be his athletic limitations. A lot of people compare William to Richard Sherman because their 40-yard times damaged their draft stocks, but Sherman was above average in his testing outside of his 40 time. The same thing cannot be confirmed of Williams because he only did the bench press and the 40. The biggest reason people don’t take a test is if they know they will flunk. Suspicion of issues is far better than confirmation of issues.As successful as he was in college the lack of athleticism showed up on tape and that disparity will only deepen in the NFL.
Personally, I think that is the biggest reason some people are down on him. If he’s a success he’s going to be a very unique success. Frankly, as long Williams plays in the low 4.5’s his speed is not a concern for me. He’s going to be fast enough to keep up with most big receivers and any tight ends. The long speed isn’t really a worry for me. The lack of overall athleticism is the red flag for me.
There are plenty of players who are successful in spite of crappy measurables. But when you lack measurables you have to make it up by being that much better of a player. Williams struggled with good route runners and makes some silly errors in zone. He also tends to be a bit of a boom-or-bust player: he can suffocate receivers to death but he also gets torched more frequently that you would like.
He has to get more consistent with what he does well and he has to develop a variety of ways to compensate for his lack of athleticism. The good news is he should have plenty of time to do that. I think the worst case scenario is that he fails to develop as a player and the lack of athleticism dooms him to mediocrity.
Closing Thoughts on the Grade
My grades are arbitrary and snap shot. The truth is that it will take years to accurately judge these picks. Consider Marcus Cannon who was universally reviled in 2015 before anchoring the right side for three straight Super Bowl berths, two championships, and one second-team All-Pro. The Patriots have access to infinitely more experience, eyes, data, and talent than I do.
On the flip side that same wealth of experience, eyes, data and skill at scouting took Jordan Richards in the second round. A guy who was projected as a seventh rounder and played like a player who should never have been drafted. No one’s perfect. This exercise is more about getting to know a player than it is a sweeping endorsement or condemnation of a pick.
For Joejuan Williams there were several things that kept him from being an A. The first was the wildly varying scouting reports and his clear athletic deficiencies. There is real risk of a bust there. He was also docked for being at a position of existing strength, having a potentially limited role, and costing significant resources to get. Keep in mind when I dock the Patriots for the resources spent it’s not because I’m against trading up — if you believe in your guy get him. It’s not “overpaying” if you hit on them. But it obviously does increase the risk associated with selection.
The reason I gave it a B instead of a C is that I see this as an innovative pick that is the direct result of another innovative pick Belichick made in the second round in 2010: Rob Gronkowski changed the way the entire NFL views the tight end position and the proliferation of tight end talents has steadily grown over the last decade. Another recent trend in the NFL, albeit not prompted by the Patriots, is the big slot and the big outside receiver. If Williams pans out the way I hope he does he will carve out a unique role in the NFL as a TE/WR coverage corner.
I really liked some of his tape and reputed intangibles too. At the end of the day I always prefer good players with mediocre athleticism to good athletes who are mediocre players.
I’m also encouraged by reports that they had a first round grade on Williams. It’s extremely rare to see the Patriots whiff completely on a first round pick. The only times the Patriots have really whiffed completely have been injury-related. Remember, the Patriots almost assuredly did not have 32 players worth of first round grades. If they had a first round grade on Williams then it means they probably saw him as top-20 player in this class.
If that’s how it pans out he will have been a steal. The specter of the second round reach definitely lingers over this pick but I am cautiously optimistic.