The New England Patriots struggled on both offense and defense during the 2020 season, but they still fielded at least one elite unit: their special teams group was arguably the best in football despite having lost coach Joe Judge to the New York Giants during the offseason.
Heading into 2021, the Patriots have done their best to maintain the quality of the group. Justin Bethel and Cody Davis were re-signed before the start of free agency, while veteran LaRoy Reynolds was added via a one-year deal. Furthermore, the option bonus in Matthew Slater’s contract was paid out as well — an indication that he will be back for another season.
Slater’s long-term future in particular is in question, though. The nine-time Pro Bowler is entering the final year of his contract and at age 35 is a realistic candidate to head off into retirement once it is over. Accordingly, New England might have to start looking for somebody to replace the franchise legend one day. And what better place to do that than the draft?
Name: Avery Williams
Position: Cornerback/Special teamer
School: Boise State (Senior)
Opening day age: 23
2020 stats: 7 games (6 starts); 19 tackles (2 tackles for loss); 1 forced fumble; 1 punt return touchdown; 2 kick return touchdowns; 2 blocked punts (1 block return touchdown)
Size: 5083, 187 lbs, 70 1/8 wingspan, 28 3/4 arm, 9 hand
Workout numbers: 4.40 40-yard dash, 33 1/2 vertical jump, 10’1” broad jump, 4.00 short shuttle, 6.88 3-cone drill, 19 bench press reps
Expected round: 7th-UDFA
Patriots pre-draft meeting: Virtual meeting
Strengths: Williams might be the best special teams player in the draft after excelling both as a coverage and a return player at Boise State. His nine career return touchdowns — five punts, three kicks, one blocked punt — and five blocked kicks show just how big of an impact he has had on the Broncos’ fortunes the last four years. He also led the Mountain West in special teams tackles for three straight seasons, and was named the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year in both 2019 and 2020.
Williams was able to accomplish all that because of his reactionary skills and lower-body quickness. He also showed an ability to read blocks well regardless if playing on the offensive or defensive side of the kicking game. He has solid straight-line speed to serve as a gunner at the next level, and brings the requisite short-area flexibility to the table to get away from blocking attempts without having to rely on his strength.
His leadership and experience also stands out. Williams played 47 games in five seasons at Boise State and was voted a captain last year.
Weaknesses: Even though the Broncos used him extensively on defense, especially early in his career, Williams offers little to no value as a cornerback at the next level. He is undersized and does not possess the frame to get stronger, meaning that he will remain a liability against perimeter runs or when going up against bigger-bodied players. He likely will have to be protected not to be put into any unfavorable situations.
Williams lacks the necessary explosiveness out of his short-stepping back-pedal or initial stance to close in on receivers. He will get burned by counter moves if selling out one way or another, and gets turned around at times in his coverage thus moving out of position to make plays on the ball or ball carrier. His chase-down tackling needs to improve as well with his size and bulk not doing him any favors in this area either.
Why the Patriots? While Williams’ upside at his listed position of cornerback is limited, his prowess as a special teamer makes him an intriguing late-round target for the Patriots. The team, after all, is always willing to invest resources in its kicking game and bringing the Boise State product aboard would be no different — especially with Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel and Cody Davis all on the wrong side of 30.
Why not the Patriots? The Patriots have only so many roster spots available, and investing another one on a rather one-dimensional player “only” capable of helping on special teams might be seen as a waste of resources. The club could very well decide to grab a player with more upside on offense and defense and comparable albeit smaller value in the kicking game. Also, there is always the chance that another team jumps on Williams before New England is in a position to do so itself.
What would be his role in New England in 2021? Williams has the potential to become a Day 1 impact player in the kicking game, both on coverage and in the return game. He would be the frontrunner to earn the kickoff return role given the current personnel on the roster, and could also take over as a punt returner (a position currently held by All-Pro Gunner Olszewski). Furthermore, he would serve on both coverage teams either as a gunner or front line defender.
What would be his role in New England beyond 2021? With Matthew Slater a realistic candidate for retirement after the 2021 season, Williams would ideally take over a leadership role within the special teams unit. In turn, he would rarely leave the field and play more than 80 percent of snaps in the roles already somewhat established during his rookie campaign.
Does he have positional versatility? While Williams has the ability to play numerous roles on all four kicking game units, his positional versatility does not extend beyond the game’s third phase. Sure, he is listed as a cornerback and has played 47 games at the position in college but his limited ceiling on defense limits what he can bring to the table. Williams is a special teamer through and through, even though he also has a background as a running back and safety from his time at Junípero Serra High School in San Juan Capistrano, California.
What is his defensive value? The Broncos employed Williams primarily as a field cornerback, which means that he aligned on the perimeter opposite the hash mark where the ball was placed. He saw action in both zone and man looks, and played both press and off coverage. If used on defense in the NFL as well, his role would likely look similar even though, as mentioned above, he appears to have comparatively little upside as a cornerback.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Given his presumptive role as a special teamer first, Williams would have to make his way onto the roster in the kicking game rather than via his defensive contributions. If so, he would have numerous players to compete against — from punt returner Gunner Olszewski, to depth defensive backs such as Joejuan Williams, Myles Bryant, D’Angelo Ross, Michael Jackson and Dee Virgin. Like Williams they would not be guaranteed spots on the roster in 2021.
Verdict: The late rounds of the draft are the time to take fliers on potential and high upside. Williams falls into that category. Given his special teams prowess in combination with New England’s long-term uncertainty in the kicking game the team bringing him in would be the least of surprises in this year’s draft. He just screams “Patriot,” maybe even more so than any other player available.