JoeJuan Williams

Patriots Roster Reset: Market cornered on coverage talent

Patriots Roster Reset: Market cornered on coverage talent

It's not all that difficult to pinpoint what the Patriots have adopted in recent seasons as their philosophy in the secondary: They match up man-to-man and dare quarterbacks to find open throwing lanes. 

It's not all Bill Belichick wants to do. He mixes in zone coverages. The Patriots famously played more zone than usual in Super Bowl 53 to help them take down Sean McVay and the Rams.

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But relative to the rest of the NFL, the Patriots have been more man-heavy than most. In 2019, according to Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots played man-to-man 54 percent of the time. That led the league, tying the Lions. It was Belichick's third consecutive year leading the league in that category. The No. 3 most man-centric defense in 2019? The Dolphins. 

The connections are obvious. Between Matt Patricia in Detroit and Brian Flores in Miami, branches from the Belichick tree prefer man.

The Patriots' effective-as-they-are-creative pass-rush plans help them match up with opposing receivers who have to try to uncover quickly before their quarterbacks are forced to throw.

But the talent that the Patriots have on the back end — athletes who are not only fast but quick, not only strong at the line of scrimmage but smart enough to adjust on the fly — has helped allow them to go with man-to-man coverages so frequently. 

Lucky for them, in 2020, once again, they appear to have one of the most talented cover corner groups in the NFL. Let's dive into the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Stephon Gilmore will be back after submitting his Defensive Player of the Year campaign in 2019. J.C. Jackson, the latest of many undrafted success stories in New England, will be back as well to shadow on the boundary.

Jonathan Jones is one of the more versatile chess pieces in the secondary for Belichick — he's played corner and safety in high-leverage spots — and looks like the team's top choice to play in the slot again. Joejuan Williams should get a crack at Year 2 after taking what was essentially a "red-shirt" season as a second-round rookie. (Though that didn't work out for 2018 second-rounder Duke Dawson.)

Jason McCourty looks like a lock this season as well, after the Patriots picked up his option for 2020. He's been guaranteed $500,000 and could provide the kind of leadership Belichick was looking for when he invested this offseason in bringing back both Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater.

ON THE BUBBLE

Justin Bethel is a special teams ace whose release could save the Patriots a couple million in cap space. While a big-time component of what the Patriots do in the kicking game since he was acquired last season, a special-teams-only player with a base salary of over $1 million makes him a "bubble" player. 

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LONG SHOTS

The Patriots are loaded at the position, making it hard for anyone to crack the roster. That's probably part of the reason why they didn't draft a player at the position. But they understand that there's strength in numbers at cornerback, that you're only as strong as your weakest link there. (Otherwise that link gets targeted again and again and again.) That's probably why they invested in multiple low-money corners this offseason despite their depth.

Undrafted rookie Myles Bryant is undersized (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) but showed some impressive playmaking skills at Washington. An undrafted rookie last year, D'Angelo Ross — also smallish at 5-9, 190 — impressed in camp but landed on IR for 2019. He's another "long shot" with clear ability.

Then there's Lenzy Pipkins, who entered the league in 2017 and was last with the Browns practice squad in 2018 after spending time on Patricia's active roster in Detroit. Pipkins spent last season out of football after being released by the Browns at the end of training camp. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

I know. I get it. Joejuan Williams is not a newcomer. But he might as well be after playing sparingly as a rookie.

He's being cross-trained going into his second year in the hopes that he might be able to provide some value both at corner and at safety, which could end up giving him much greater value to the Patriots than as a No. 5 corner behind Gilmore, Jackson, Jones and McCourty. The Patriots are an injury or two away from needing a body at either spot in the secondary and so Williams' development — at both spots — bears watching this summer.  

X-FACTOR

J.C. Jackson certainly benefits from being Stephon Gilmore's teammate. Not only does he get to watch one of the best in the world at his craft on a day-to-day basis. Jackson also gets to cover players who aren't the top targets on their teams. That gig is usually Gilmore's. But Jackson has an argument as one of the most underrated players in football over the course of the last two years — partly because he's playing in Gilmore's shadow.

Jackson's production has been tremendous, though. He had the lowest passer rating allowed in the NFL last season (37.0), and on deep passes he allowed just two of 16 targets to be caught. He intercepted five and tied for the best deep-ball coverage rating (0.0) in the NFL with Richard Sherman. In 2018, he allowed a league-low 42.0 passer rating. Devin McCourty called him the best tracker of the football he's played with in his Patriots career.

If he can continue to grow into a bonafide No. 1-playing-as-a-No. 2 corner in 2020, the Patriots secondary is once again going to have an argument as football's best.

Joejuan Williams puts optimistic spin on uncertain role with Patriots

Joejuan Williams puts optimistic spin on uncertain role with Patriots

Joejuan Williams isn't exactly in an ideal situation.

The 22-year-old was buried behind Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson last year in the Patriots' loaded cornerback group. He appeared in just nine of New England's 16 games and played 10 or more defensive snaps in just three of those contests despite the team taking him 45th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Gilmore, McCourty, Jones and Jackson all are back in 2020, meaning Williams must elevate his game this season -- or try his hand at safety, which ESPN's Mike Reiss reported as a possibility for the second-year pro.

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Some players (especially second-round picks) might balk at a position change, but the Vanderbilt product appears open to whatever helps him stick around.

"I want to be in the league for the long haul," Williams told Patriots.com's Paul Perillo. " ... Of course you want to challenge and compete for time. Steph and the McCourtys … learning from those guys standing side by side has been a blessing.

"As a competitor you want to get out there and play but also you want to sit back and put your team in the best position. If my role is to learn then that is my role."

Williams also sees a potential benefit in taking snaps at safety, a transition Devin McCourty made early in his Patriots career after starting out as a cornerback.

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"It will only make me more valuable and a better player overall for my team if I'm lined up at cornerback and I know what the safety's assignment is," Williams said. 

"Knowing the whole defense conceptually makes everything better. You know what other teammates are supposed to be doing. That helps you play quicker and make more plays because you know where your help is supposed to be."

Williams would have plenty of competition at safety, too, as top draft pick Kyle Dugger and free-agent signing Adrian Phillips join McCourty, Patrick Chung and Terrence Brooks in another deep group.

But head coach Bill Belichick values intelligent, versatile defenders, so if Williams can master the playbook as both a cornerback and a safety, he'll greatly increase his chances of making an impact in 2020.

Jason McCourty explains how Patriots' Joejuan Williams 'got better' as a rookie

Jason McCourty explains how Patriots' Joejuan Williams 'got better' as a rookie

Joejuan Williams didn't play much as a rookie in the 2019 NFL season, but one of his teammates is confident he'll be ready when the opportunity arrives.

The New England Patriots selected Williams out of Vanderbilt in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The 22-year-old cornerback played in nine regular season games for the Patriots in his rookie campaign, and he played more snaps on special teams (84) than he did on defense (80).

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Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty liked what he saw from Williams last season despite his limited playing time. In a video conference call with reporters Wednesday, McCourty explained how Williams' compete level was a huge factor in his improvement during the 2019 campaign.

"He loves to compete," McCourty said. "I think that’s something that you need. Obviously, at our position, when you’re in the back end, any mistake can be a 70-yard touchdown or a game-changing play, so I think you’ve got to have guys that are willing to go out there every single day and compete your butts off and get better. That’s what he did last year. As a rookie, he came in, he was willing to learn, he was willing to listen, and I felt like every day when we went out there on the practice field, he got better.

"I think not only for him being a rookie, but for all of us as a team, that’s what the process is about. Whether you’re in year one or you’re in year 12, every day you’ve got to show up with a willingness to compete and to prove that you belong there and a willingness to get better and listen to coaching. I think whether it’s Joejuan, whether it was D’Angelo (Ross) before he got here, Malik (Gant), all of those young guys came in and they were willing to listen to the older guys, listen to the coaches and really do everything that was asked of them on a daily basis to make sure they were making the necessary movements forward to get better as a football player."

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Did Williams prove he belonged? McCourty said he did, but not before getting in a friendly jab at Vanderbilt.

"I mean, he went to Vanderbilt, so that’s a little bit of a knock on him. In the SEC, they’re one of the weaker schools, but other than that, yeah, he definitely did."

One way for Williams to play more snaps in 2020 is by learning to play safety. The ability to fill in at cornerback and safety would provide the Patriots defense with valuable versatility, and we know Patriots head coach Bill Belichick very much values players who excel at multiple positions.

The Patriots have tons of depth and loads of talent in their secondary -- highlighted by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner Stephon Gilmore -- but that doesn't mean Williams won't fill a key role for that group next season, especially if he's able to play both cornerback and safety.