In the second round of the NFL’s 2019 draft, the New England Patriots decided to move up the board to add another piece to a cornerback group already among the best in the league. That piece was Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams, a prospect with an intriguing mix of size and athletic skills who brought back memories of one-time Patriot Brandon Browner. But while his upside was — and remains — intriguing, Williams saw only marginal playing time during his first season as a pro.
Playing primarily a backup role behind a top-four consisting of Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones, the rookie appeared in just nine of a possible 16 regular season games in 2019 before also being active for the Patriots’ lone playoff contest. Even when he was able to get onto the field, however, Williams was not guaranteed to get any consistent looks in the team’s secondary: he played just 85 combined defensive snaps all year.
Heading into Year Two, the youngster therefore has a simple goal in mind: build on 2019.
“My rookie year was a big learning year for me,” the 45th overall selection of last year’s draft recently told Paul Perillo of patriots.com. “I didn’t play much at the beginning of the season and I started getting into the rotation on defense and special teams the last few games. That’s when I got most of my snaps. But it also gave me a chance to look up to the guys in front of me, watching them and following them was very helpful.
“Slowly but surely each week you try to build, and you keep doing that and building on top of that and I would try to get one percent better. It was a big learning curve and I’m still learning now,” Williams added when recapping his rookie season.
As for 2020, that learning process also includes adding the safety position to Williams’ repertoire. Playing safety would, of course, be nothing new for him: while he did not see any action at the position over the course of the regular season and playoffs, the Patriots did use him in this capacity during the preseason finale against the New York Giants. Back then, Williams played 70 of a possible 87 defensive snaps aligned either as a free safety or a linebacker/strong safety hybrid.
“It will only make me more valuable and a better player overall for my team if I’m lined up at cornerback and I know what the safety’s assignment is,” Williams said about trying to study the safety spot as well this offseason. Knowing the whole defense conceptually makes everything better. You know what other teammates are supposed to be doing. That helps you play quicker and make more plays because you know where your help is supposed to be.
“With the quarantine I feel like I’ve gotten so much better taking advantage of the time,” he continued. “I’ve been putting more work in with my body trying working on my flexibility. I’ve been able to get yoga in two times a day every day. Football-wise I’ve been getting in the playbook more and learning more than just corner. I’ve had more time to study and getting everything in, and I’ve been spending more time with the family.”
Ultimately, Williams is trying to build a foundation that should help him stick around pro football for years to come despite the comparatively slow start to his career.
“I want to be in the league for the long haul,” he said. “Learning from those guys has been great. Those guys have been my big brothers. Of course you want to challenge and compete for time. Steph and the McCourtys [...] learning from those guys standing side by side has been a blessing. As a competitor you want to get out there and play but also you want to sit back and put your team in the best position. If my role is to learn then that is my role.”