With the offseason workout program and mandatory minicamp in the books, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with cornerback Joejuan Williams.
Name: Joejuan Williams
Jersey number: 33
Opening day age: 23
Size: 6-foot-4, 210 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? During his three seasons at Vanderbilt University, Williams 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, he started 12 contests and was named to the All-SEC squad — all while setting new career highs in interceptions, passes defended, and tackles. His development and athletic potential made him one of the more intriguing cornerback prospects to enter the NFL Draft in 2019.
As a result of this, Williams quickly came off the board. He was selected with the 45th overall pick after the Patriots had traded up 11 positions in the second round to get him aboard. Despite his status as an early draft selection, Williams has only seen inconsistent playing time since joining the league: he has appeared in a combined 25 regular season and playoff games over his first two years, but was given most of his opportunities on special teams rather than at his listed position of cornerback.
What did his 2020 season look like? Williams’ rookie season was a quiet one given the impressive talent the Patriots fielded at cornerback in 2019. The general conditions remained unchanged heading into his second season in the system: all four cornerbacks ahead of him on the depth chart — Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Jason McCourty — returned, again leaving him as just the fifth option at the position. Accordingly, Williams’ defensive playing time was again inconsistent.
All in all, the former second-round draft pick appeared in 15 of 16 games and was on the field for 171 of 1,017 defensive snaps (16.8%). While this was a clear increase over his 2020 output (7.9%), he still did not change his status as the fifth cornerback on the depth chart despite the Patriots’ heavy usage of sub-package personnel. Furthermore, Williams was unable to take advantage of strong safety Patrick Chung opting out of the season; he was seen as a potential replacement but never really was given a chance.
That all happened despite the season starting well for Williams. He opened Year 2 with a 27-snap performance against the Miami Dolphins that saw him play considerable snaps lined up over tight end Mike Gesicki. He allowed just one 9-yard reception on a pair of targets, but the encouraging outing was unfortunately not a sign of things to come. Most of his action for the rest of the year 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.
Only when the Patriots lost Stephon Gilmore to a quad injury down the stretch did he see some semi-regular playing time again. In general, he was a serviceable if not necessarily outstanding contributor whenever on the field as a member of New England’s secondary. Opposing quarterbacks went 6-for-11 when targeting him, gaining 110 yards in the process. He also broke up a pair of throws and was flagged twice for defensive holding (one of those penalties was declined). Williams furthermore registered 14 tackles.
Williams’ biggest impact might actually have come on special teams. He was used on three units — the punt return and both kickoff squads — and ended the season seventh on the team in terms of kicking game snaps: Williams was on the field for 176 of a possible 399 snaps (44.1%) and registered 4 additional tackles. His overall output in 2020 did not scream “second-year jump” but he did show some development and carved out a role on special teams even if he failed to do the same on the defensive side of the ball.
What is his projected role? Williams possesses plenty of potential value due to his size and functional athleticism. As was the case in 2020, he could be used as a rotational perimeter and slot cornerback against taller pass catchers, and possibly also as a developmental safety/linebacker hybrid 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 heading into his third year in the system.
What is his special teams value? Over the first two seasons of his career, Williams’ most consistent role was that of a special teamer — something that should continue in 2021 considering the depth ahead of him at the cornerback position. If that is indeed the case, the 23-year-old will 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? The Patriots did not just move Williams around in the kicking game last year, they also used him in a variety of roles on defense. He moved between outside cornerback (82 snaps), slot cornerback (58) and box safety (30), and also aligned deep on one snap. New England likes its defensive backs to play more than one role, and Williams being able to do that should increase his value even if used in a backup capacity.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the third year of his rookie contract, Williams is on the Patriots’ books with a salary cap hit of $1.81 million. He is playing on a salary of $1.1 million and also carries a fully guaranteed signing bonus proration worth $709,846. New England could create some minor cap savings in case of a trade or release, which would be a disappointing but not unprecedented move (see: other second-round defensive backs through the years).
What is his roster outlook? With the Patriots essentially replacing Jason McCourty with Jalen Mills on their depth chart, Williams is still projected as only the fifth cornerback heading towards training camp. Even that is not etched in stone, though, given the prominent playing time rookie Myles Bryant received in 2020. Williams and Bryant might both be able to find a spot on the roster if the team carries six corners again, but the former second-rounder will have to prove his value on both defense and special teams over the summer to keep his job. Based on his first two years, that is not a guarantee. Of course, all of this could change in case minicamp holdout Stephon Gilmore does not return.