FOXBORO, Mass. — In a way, Joejuan Williams is like a high school freshman running with the varsity.
He clearly has potential, but he’s not bumping out the juniors and seniors anytime soon.
The New England Patriots’ promising young cornerback has spent his rookie season buried at the bottom of the depth chart in arguably the NFL’s deepest, most talented and most experienced secondary.
With Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty all outranking him, Williams’ playing time has been minimal, amounting to just 36 defensive snaps through 14 games — nearly all of them in garbage time — with seven healthy scratches. Even the groin injury that’s sidelined McCourty for most of the last month hasn’t significantly altered Williams’ role.
That might change this week, however.
With slot corner Jonathan Jones (groin) ruled out for Saturday’s matchup with the Buffalo Bills and McCourty listed as questionable, Williams could enter this game as New England’s No. 3 corner behind Gilmore and Jackson as the Patriots attempt to lock down their 11th consecutive AFC East title.
“My whole mindset has always been whenever my name is called, just to be ready,” the 22-year-old told NESN.com on Thursday. “So that’s pretty much it. Whenever my name’s called, I’ll be ready.”
Williams, the Patriots’ second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, has treated this season like an apprenticeship of sorts. Though he’d probably be playing — and maybe even starting — on most other NFL teams, he’s relished the opportunity to learn from New England’s stable of seasoned defensive backs.
“At the end of the day, I take a look at the guys I’m learning from,” Williams said. “Look at these guys — they’re great leaders. I want to have careers like these guys. I mean, JMac’s in the league for 10-plus (seasons). DMac (safety Devin McCourty) is in the league for 10. Steph’s in the league for eight now. At the end of the day, I’m learning from some of the best guys, and I take it as that. Whenever my name is called, I’ll be ready, but right now, I’m soaking it up from these guys and learning from the best. I can’t beat that. I can’t take that for granted.”
What’s he been able to learn from these veterans?
“Everything,” Williams said. “On and off the field. Even, like, where to go with my girl or what type of food to eat or where to train at in the offseason. You can ask these guys anything, and JMac and Steph have definitely taken me under their wings. I can ask these guys anything, and they’ll give me their best answer, their best opinion on it. I can’t beat it.”
Williams compared his experience as a Patriots rookie to his freshman year at Vanderbilt. He played in every game that season but wasn’t part of the Commodores’ regular cornerback rotation until late in the fall.
“It’s not the same, of course,” Williams said. “You’re in the League versus the SEC. But I just take it as that. You sit back, you learn and you learn from the best. And all the stuff that’s keeping them playing at a high level, you’re implementing that into your game, too, and you just learn from those guys. So I feel like I’m in a great position.”
“Very fortunate” were the words Williams used, multiple times, to describe his current situation. Like any player, he wants to be on the field as much as possible, but he also knows he’s in an ideal spot for professional development.
“They’re playing at a high level, all of those guys,” he said. “I want to be better than them, but anywhere close to them is a great career.”
Williams was one of the Patriots’ top defensive performers during the preseason, and at 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, his physical toolbox is one few corners can replicate. With game action hard to come by, he’s spent these last few months sharpening those tools in practice.
“When you’re on scout team, you give scout team a really good look,” Williams said. “That’s your game day. Steph will tell me, ‘If you’re not playing this weekend, Wednesdays and Thursdays are your game days. Those are your days to work on your craft and get better as much as you can.’ …
“That’s how you stay ready: taking mental reps if you’re not on the field, making sure you’re still watching the same amount of film as the guys who are playing. You envision yourself in that position, and once you get out there, it’s not easy, but it’ll be a lot better.”
Special teams standout Justin Bethel also could see time at cornerback against Buffalo if Jones and McCourty can’t go. Bethel has plenty of defensive experience from his days with the Arizona Cardinals (four career interceptions, three pick-sixes) but has logged just five snaps outside of the kicking game since making his Patriots debut in late October.