FOXBORO — The New England Patriots defensive backfield will be among the most watched, and potentially most scrutinized areas of the roster heading into 2022 training camp.
Following the departure of second-team All-Pro cornerback J.C. Jackson [who signed a multi-year mega deal with the Los Angeles Chargers], New England’s cornerback position was in need of some assistance. As a result, the team agreed to deals with cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Malcolm Butler, and selected cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Jack Jones in the 2022 NFL Draft.
New England’s new additions will join incumbents Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Myles Bryant, Shaun Wade, Justin Bethel and Joejuan Williams on the depth chart. With only a limited number of spaces available on the team’s 53-man roster, some of the Pats defensive backs will be on the outside looking in when the season starts in September.
Among those who may find themselves on the proverbial hot seat is fourth-year corner Williams.
The Patriots selected the Vanderbilt product with the 45th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Williams had been a player the Pats had long coveted during the pre-draft process. After all, he had just finished his junior season with 61 total tackles, four interceptions and 13 passes defended. At the NFL Combine, he ran a 4.64 second 40-yard dash and put up 17 reps on the bench press; exhibiting a coveted blend of size, speed and strength.
Though the team was originally set to pick at 56 overall in the second round, New England traded up with the Los Angeles Rams to select Williams with the 45th pick. In the process, they surrendered their 56th and 101st overall selections for his services.
Unfortunately for Williams, he has yet to make his mark in the team’s secondary. The Pats have used him sporadically during his three-year tenure, playing just 15, 18 and 35 percent of their defensive snaps, respectively. In 2021, Williams logged 26 total tackles [10 of which came against the run], five passes defensed and one quarterback hurry.
However, his most memorable moments of the season came while surrendering a 37-yard touchdown versus the Houston Texans in Week 5, and allowing Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen to go 4 for 5 for 72 yards and one touchdown against his coverage. Ultimately, he ended his 2021 season having given up 14 receptions on 23 targets for a combined 201 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, the 24-year-old possesses plenty of potential value due to his size and athleticism.
At 6-3, 212 pounds, Williams is most effective when used as a rotational perimeter and slot cornerback against taller pass catchers. He also comes with great risk. He has yet to emerge as a match with New England’s press coverage schemes. Despite being made a ‘healthy scratch’ following some dismal performances in 2021, Williams may be the Pats most physical veteran option at the position.
In the final analysis, the odds are stacked against Williams continuing his career in New England. From a financial standpoint, the Patriots would save $1,398,636 against the cap by making him a post-June-1st roster cut. On the field, his frequent unsteady moments in coverage have led to significant questions as to whether he can be a reliable depth option. As a starter, New England’s pass defense might be put at a significant disadvantage with Williams opposite Mills, Butler or Jones, unless he flashes some of the physicality, which made him a sought-after target in the 2019 draft.
New England’s veterans are set to report to training camp at Gillette Stadium on July 26. Williams will need to perform at his highest level to earn his spot with the Pats in 2022. Otherwise, he will be continuing his football journey outside of New England.