Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s secondary.
Name: Joejuan Williams
Jersey number: 33
Opening day age: 22
Size: 6-foot-4, 210 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Coming off the most productive season of his three-year career at Vanderbilt, Williams decided to enter the NFL draft in 2019 — and quickly came off the board as the 45th overall selection after the Patriots traded up 11 positions to get him aboard. While he saw only limited playing time during his rookie season by appearing in just 10 of a possible 17 games as a backup cornerback and special teamer, Williams has plenty of experience going back to his time in college.
During his three seasons as a member of the Commodores, after all, he appeared in a combined 38 games and saw extensive action as a starting cornerback from his sophomore season on. In his last year before leaving to turn pro, Williams started 12 contests and was named to the All-SEC squad — all while setting new career highs in interceptions, passes defended, and tackles. His NFL experience may be minimal, but Williams does have plenty of football under his belt.
What did his 2019 season look like? When the Patriots selected Williams in the second round of the draft, they added him to a cornerback depth chart that was already among the deepest and most talented in the NFL even before he was brought aboard. While the rookie did offer some unique traits — his combination of size and measured quickness is rare — he therefore only saw limited playing time during his first year in New England, and served primarily as a backup option.
All in all, Williams appeared in just nine of a possible 16 regular season games in 2019 and also saw the field in the Patriots’ lone playoff contest. Even when he was active on game day, however, Williams was not guaranteed to get any consistent looks in the team’s secondary: the youngster played only a combined 85 of 1,070 defensive snaps (7.9%) throughout the year. That said, he did look serviceable when used in the occasional coverage role.
Williams was targeted a combined seven times in the passing game, but he surrendered only three receptions for a total of 32 yards. He also registered a pass breakup and did not miss a tackle on his four attempts. The sample size is admittedly small, but Williams did make the most of his chances — something that also can be said about his role on special teams: he played 96 of 474 snaps (20.3%) and finished the season with a pair of tackles. The numbers may not be outstanding, but they are solid.
What is his projected role? While Williams saw only irregular playing time in 2019, he potentially possesses plenty of value due to his size and functional athleticism. He could therefore be used not just as a perimeter cornerback against taller pass catchers, but possibly also a developmental safety to help defend opposing tight ends. It remains to be seen what his role will eventually look like, but the Patriots will have to hope their former early-round investment can show some strides regardless of position.
What is his special teams value? During his rookie season, Williams’ most consistent role was that of a special teamer — something that could continue in 2020 considering the depth ahead of him at the cornerback position. If that is indeed the case, the 22-year-old could once more see regular snaps on both kickoff and punt return teams as well as the kick coverage unit. Given his length, a role on field goal and extra point blocking units also might be in the cards.
Does he have positional versatility? Williams is reportedly trying to improve his repertoire (and thus his value to New England’s defensive operation) this offseason by also training at the safety spot. Offering that kind of versatility on top of his unique size could make him a jack-of-all-trades for the Patriots’ coaching staff to work with — especially after his rookie season saw him get used as an outside cornerback first and foremost.
What is his salary cap situation? After getting drafted by the Patriots, Williams signed a standard four-year deal with the club. Heading into the contract’s second season, he is still among the cheaper players on the team’s payroll: Williams hits New England’s books with a salary cap number of $1.51 million. The only way for the team to reduce this number would be to trade the defender; an unlikely but not unprecedented move (see: fellow former second-rounder Duke Dawson).
What is his roster outlook? Even though the Patriots traded the aforementioned Duke Dawson ahead of his second regular season, Williams does not appear to be headed down this road just yet. Yes, New England’s outstanding cornerback depth and an offseason arrest on drug charges both work against him, but his success in a limited role last season and general skillset should give him a chance to carve out a specialized role in Year Two.