Finishing the 2022 season with an 8-9 record and out of the playoffs, the New England Patriots have plenty of work to do to return to postseason contention. One big part of this process will be taking care of their own class of free agents.
Quite a few players are headed for the open market, with a total of 18 players left that were with New England last year in need of a new contract. Among them is cornerback Joejuan Williams, who is set to enter unrestricted free agency on March 15.
Name: Joejuan Williams
Jersey number: 33
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6-foot-4, 210 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? Coming off a rather successful three-year career at Vanderbilt, Williams entered the NFL as a second-round selection by the Patriots in the 2019 draft. New England traded up 11 positions to No. 45 overall to bring the big-bodied defender in, obviously enamored with his athletic potential and impressive development in college. Through his four 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 just 38 out of a possible 68 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; the same is true for making consistent contributions to the team. Williams has yet to register a takeaway in the NFL while allowing opposing quarterbacks to post a 113.4 rating when targeting him in coverage.
What did his 2022 season look like? Coming off a third straight season that saw him fall short of expectations, Williams entered training camp under considerable pressure. The Patriots, after all, had just invested two mid-round draft picks in the cornerback position, had added some veterans to the room as well, and in general fielded a deeper group even after losing former starter J.C. Jackson to free agency. This meant that Williams was in make-or-break territory, with his outlook not necessarily a rosy one.
He indeed spent the early portions of training camp near the bottom of the depth chart and showed little that would suggest an improvement anytime soon. New England’s first preseason game against the New York Giants only confirmed this belief: despite seeing extensive action and playing 48 of a possible 86 defensive snaps (55.8%) — plus eight more on special teams (of 28; 28.6%) — Williams again had a rough time; he surrendered three touchdowns on four targets for 20 yards and a touchdown, per Pro Football Focus.
To make matters worse, Williams suffered a shoulder injury in the contest that eventually cost him the remainder of his fourth NFL season. The Patriots placed him on injured reserve ahead of the first roster cutdown deadline, deeming him ineligible to be reactivated at any point. But even if he had made out of that game healthy, Williams was not guaranteed to make it through that or any subsequent roster cuts. He might have found his way onto the practice squad, but New England just straight-up moving on was no less likely.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Williams’ contract history is pretty straight-forward. He joined the Patriots on a standard four-year rookie contract at a value of $6.63 million. Even though he missed considerable time since 2019, he was still able to earn the entirety of that deal.
Which teams might be in the running? His last four years will likely not prompt teams to go hard after him in free agency, but that does not mean Williams will not have any suitors. The Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Las Vegas Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are all in need of cornerback help. In addition, the Houston Texans — led by former New England director of player personnel Nick Caserio — might also be willing to take a flier on him.
Why should he be expected back? After four underwhelming seasons, it seems unlikely the Patriots want him back. The only plausible reasons would be his experience in the system paired with a cheap price tag and some uncertainty at the outside cornerback position.
Why should he be expected to leave? While expectations are oftentimes unfairly placed on early-round draft selections, it is fair to say that Williams failed to justify the 45th overall pick in 2019 being spent on him. He never showed he can be a consistent player on defense despite his intriguing combination of size and athleticism. Add the fact that the Patriots might add another cornerback early in this year’s draft after already adding Marcus Jones and Jack Jones in 2021, and you see why there are a lot of arguments against a return.
What is his projected free agency outcome? Williams will not be back with the Patriots in 2023, but his free agency might not necessarily be as inactive as his play the last four seasons would suggest. Teams might see him as a reclamation project of sorts, even tough they will likely not offer much more than a veteran’s minimum deal at $1.08 million over one year — a deal that would not qualify him for the compensatory draft picks formula.
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