When Joejuan Williams heard his name called in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft, he joined a cornerback depth chart that was already among the deepest and most talented in the NFL even before he was brought aboard: the New England Patriots featured established veterans Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty as well as young up-and-comers Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson — all of which having just helped the team win a Super Bowl — and fellow former second-rounder Duke Dawson.
While Dawson was eventually traded to the Denver Broncos, Williams still saw only limited playing time during his first year in New England, and served primarily as a backup option behind the top-four. All in all, the rookie 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, Williams was not guaranteed to get any consistent looks in the team’s secondary, playing just 85 combined defensive snaps all year.
Despite his limited on-field action, however, Williams apparently still put his work in the bank — at least when fellow defensive back Jason McCourty is to be believed. The 32-year-old recently spoke about the 45th overall selection in last year’s draft during a media conference call, and praised his competitiveness as well as the growth he displayed behind the scenes over the course of his first year in the NFL.
“He loves to compete. I think that’s something that you need,” McCourty said when assessing Williams and how he fared during his rookie campaign. “Obviously, at our position, when you’re in the back end, any mistake can be a 70 yard touchdown or a game changing play, so I think you’ve got to have guys that are willing to go out there every single day and compete your butts off and get better. That’s what he did last year.
“As a rookie, he came in, he was willing to learn, he was willing to listen, and I felt like every day when we went out there on the practice field, he got better,” McCourty added. “I think not only for him being a rookie, but for all of us as a team, that’s what the process is about. Whether you’re in Year One or you’re in Year 12, every day you’ve got to show up with a willingness to compete and to prove that you belong there and a willingness to get better and listen to coaching.”
Williams doing just that showed. Despite seeing only irregular playing time, he made the most out of his chances last year: the youngster 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. All in all, he was able to build a solid foundation as New England’s number five corner during the 2019 season.
For McCourty, Williams’ first year in the league also showed that he belongs on an NFL field — whether it is on defense or in the kicking game: “I mean, he went to Vanderbilt, so that’s a little bit of a knock on him. In the SEC, they’re one of the weaker schools. But other than that, yeah, he definitely did.”
Now entering his second season in the system, Williams still faces the same obstacles he encountered last year; Gilmore, McCourty, Jones and Jackson are again projected to serve as the top-four at the cornerback position. However, the 22-year-old is reportedly trying to grow his repertoire to also possibly receive more looks at the safety position and in turn increase his value to New England’s defensive operation.
Time will tell whether this plan pays any dividends, but Williams is actively trying to stay on the trajectory that McCourty identified last year.