With the offseason workout program in the rear-view mirror, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 87 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with fourth-year cornerback Joejuan Williams.
Name: Joejuan Williams
Jersey number: 33
Opening day age: 24
Size: 6-foot-4, 210 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
What is his experience? Coming off a rather successful three-year career at Vanderbilt, Williams joined the NFL as a second-round selection by the Patriots in the 2019 draft. New England traded up 11 positions to No. 45 to bring the big-bodied defender in, obviously enamored with his athletic potential and development in college. Through three seasons at the pro level, however, Williams has failed to meet expectations and has mostly disappointed as a role player within the Patriots’ secondary.
All in all, Williams has seen action in a combined 38 out of 51 possible regular season and playoff games since his arrival in Foxborough. He did have some positive moments both on defense and special teams — he has yet to miss a tackle in his career, for example — but earning regular playing time has been a problem for him, as has making consistent contributions to the team. Williams has yet to register a takeaway while allowing opposing quarterbacks to post a 113.4 passer rating when targeting him in coverage.
What did his 2021 season look like? Coming off an up-and-down sophomore campaign that saw him carve out a role on special teams but fail to make any major strides on the defensive side of the ball, Williams appeared to be on the roster bubble heading into 2021. However, he was able to earn plenty of practice reps and game-day snaps over the summer and appeared to establish himself as a valuable depth option at the outside cornerback position behind eventual starters J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills.
Williams indeed ended up making the cut and filling the CB3 role on the outside. With both Jackson and Mills rather durable players, however, he saw only limited opportunities to prove himself. In total, the former second-round draft pick appeared in just 12 of New England’s 17 regular season games as well as the team’s wild card playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills. Along the way, he was on the field for one fourth of defensive snaps: Williams played 295 out of 1,135 possible defensive snaps in 2021 (26%).
While his playing time represented a new career high for Williams, his usage as a whole was again far from consistent. While he averaged 19.5 snaps per game over the first 12 weeks of the season — including two that he spent as a game-day inactive — that number dropped to just 8.7 over the final six games; three of those contests did not see him take the field at all. When he was inserted into the lineup, mostly in place of an unavailable Jalen Mills against Houston (hamstring) and Buffalo (Covid-19), he struggled.
Williams surrendered a 37-yard touchdown on his lone target versus the Texans in Week 5, and later contributed to the Patriots’ playoff defeat by allowing Bills quarterback Josh Allen to go 4-for-5 for 72 yards and a score against him. The third-year man ended up getting benched in both contests. All in all, he ended his 2021 season having given up 14 receptions on 23 targets for a combined 201 yards and two touchdowns. He also registered 25 total tackles — 10 of them versus the run — as well as one quarterback hurry.
As opposed to 2020, Williams also was not able to earn himself a steady job on special teams. After ranking seventh in kicking game snaps the previous season with a playing time share of 44.1 percent, he finished 2021 behind 20 of his teammates in the same category: seeing irregular action on the punt and kickoff return squads as well as the kickoff coverage team, Williams played 85 of a possible 464 snaps in the game’s third phase (18.3%). He registered one tackle and no other notable statistics.
What is his projected role? The Patriots used Williams as their number three perimeter cornerback in 2021, and the expectation is that he will be employed in a similar fashion heading into his fourth season in the league; that is if his performance relative to the other outside CBs allows him to keep his spot on the depth chart or roster altogether. The team might also try to take advantage of his size and use him as a package-specific matchup versus bigger-bodied wide receivers and tight ends.
Does he have positional versatility? Even though the Patriots employed Williams primarily as an outside cornerback the last three years, he also has some experience aligning in other spots in their secondary. In 2021, for example, he did not just see action on the perimeter (249 snaps) but also in the slot (28), as a box safety (22), along the defensive line (4) and even deep (1). Interestingly enough, almost one fifth of his defensive snaps in preseason came as a free safety.
What is his special teams value? Besides his up-and-down defensive contributions, Williams has also been a three-unit special teamer for the Patriots ever since his arrival in 2019. He has been part of the kickoff coverage and return teams as well as the punt return squad. His experience in the game’s third phase goes beyond those three units, however: New England has given him opportunities on punt coverage and the field goal/extra point blocking groups in preseason as well.
What is his salary cap situation? Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Williams carries the 27th highest salary cap hit on the Patriots’ roster. He is on the books with a cap number of $2.11 million that is split up into a $1.4 million salary and a fully-guaranteed $709,846 signing bonus proration. In case of a release or trade only that bonus would remain on New England’s payroll as dead money.
How safe is his roster spot? Despite his status as a former second-round draft pick, Williams’ position on the current roster is not secure. Quite the opposite actually: he struggled when used extensively last season, and has not shown any notable development that would suggest him moving into a more prominent role in 2022 or even keeping his current one. Unless he proves himself as a serviceable option compared to fellow outside cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler, Terrance Mitchell, Jack Jones and Shaun Wade, his outlook is bleak.
One-sentence projection: While he is the most experienced outside cornerback in the Patriots’ system at the moment, Williams will not be on the team’s roster come the start of the regular season.