A second-round defensive back. Again.
That was probably the first reaction a lot of New England Patriots fans had when Joejuan Williams, cornerback, Vanderbilt was announced as the 45th overall selection in the 2019 NFL draft. In the two seasons since, that “Here we go again!” feeling was probably only strengthened by Williams failing to carve out a regular role in the Patriots’ defensive backfield.
It all started so well, though, at least this year. After Williams played only 80 total defensive snaps as a rookie while buried on the depth chart behind the NFL’s best secondary, he opened Year Two with a 27-snap performance against the Miami Dolphins. During that game, the Patriots used him in a role many envisioned he would have when he first arrived in New England.
Williams saw considerable snaps versus Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki, and allowed just one 9-yard reception on two targets. It was an encouraging outing, but unfortunately not a sign of things to come.
Williams played in 14 of the 15 games that followed — he was a healthy scratch in the Week 15 rematch versus Miami — but was on the field for only 144 more defensive snaps after the season opener. Most of his action came in either a highly specialized role, on special teams, or in garbage time, and not like he was used against the Dolphins in Week 1.
So, what to make of this? And what will the future hold for him moving forward? Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had to say a little bit about that during a media conference call last week.
“Joejuan’s role will be determined by Joejuan, just like it is with every player. But, I think he has a lot of things going for him and he’s established a pretty solid role for us in the kicking game,” Belichick said. “Defensively, he’s shown the ability to do some things both inside and outside. It’s a position overall that we have pretty good depth in in terms of our safeties, corners and overall secondary. So, it’s overall a very competitive group of players.
“But, he’s certainly held his own in there and shown that he has a solid role for our team. Whether that role increases or decreases will really be determined by him and his performance, same as everybody else.”
Belichick touched on a key point that impacted Williams both of the last two years: the depth ahead of him. While the Patriots did lose safeties Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon during the 2020 offseason, they added Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger to help fill their roles and also kept the cornerback depth chart virtually intact.
As a result, Williams remained stuck behind some of the Patriots’ best players regardless of position. Heading into 2021, however, the secondary’s overall outlook could change quite a bit with J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty headed towards restricted and unrestricted free agency, respectively, and with Stephon Gilmore’s future in New England in question as well. Williams might find himself higher up on the depth chart next season.
A lot can and will happen over the coming weeks and months, but the Patriots will likely have to ask their former Day Two draft investment to take a bigger leap like the one he showed in 2020. Even though he made some strides in the kicking game between his first and second seasons — he played 176 of a possible 389 special teams snaps this year — whether or not Williams will be up to the challenge remains to be seen.
If he fails to do that, however, he might be added to the long list of Patriots second-round disappointments sooner rather than later.