As far as “big gets” go for Vanderbilt football, Joejuan Williams was one of the biggest. The in-state blue-chip prospect was the prize of Derek Mason’s 2016 class, a four-star recruit who chose the Commodores despite overtures from Alabama, Penn State, LSU, Oklahoma, and bitter rival Tennessee.
Williams is now a member of the New England Patriots, selected 45th overall, in the second round of the NFL Draft.
The 6’4 cornerback lived up to his stature in three momentum-building years in Nashville. He turned his side of the field into a part-time graveyard, leaving opposing wideouts tiptoeing through his coverage with held breath and understated reverence. While his numbers don’t scream “elite” on the surface — he didn’t record an interception until his 23rd game at Vanderbilt — his ability to nullify other team’s top receiving threats will make him a commodity at the next level.
And now, with the 2019 NFL Draft less than 20 miles from his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, he’s ready to face a whole new set of lofty expectations. While Williams wasn’t the first cornerback to hear his name called at this year’s draft, he could be the one who puts together the strongest pro career.
Williams is a near-perfect specimen for teams in need of a “big” cornerback
Williams is a press-coverage monster who rolled his top statistical season — 61 tackles, four interceptions — into a place in the top half of the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s a physical, route-stifling presence who won’t get outjumped and who is capable of completely erasing scoring threats in the red zone.
The easiest comparison to make with Williams is Richard Sherman — another tall cover-corner who played under Mason (currently Vandy’s head coach, formerly Sherman’s DBs coach at Stanford) and came into the league facing questions about his athleticism and coverage ability. Here’s what NFL.com had to say about the three-time All-Pro’s weaknesses the spring before he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the fifth round:
Can be baited out of position when in zone and a tick late to diagnose underneath routes. Tall, high-cut prospect who displays some hip-stiffness. Not explosive when transitioning or when changing direction. Lacks great recovery skills when beaten off the line. Can struggle tacking in the open field at times.
And here’s a sampling of what the league’s official scouting report said about Williams’ issues as a pro:
– Impatience from press is a concern
– Displaced out of position by outside release fakes
– Needs better connection rate with jams
– Lacks hips and long speed to survive a speedster’s head-start
– Downfield ball skills need work
Pretty similar! And while Williams certainly needs to refine his coverage skills, he was a fast learner en route to becoming the leader of the Vandy secondary. Mason moved his star cornerback across the lineup and in several different coverages in order to confuse opposing quarterbacks, lining him up on the sideline, in the slot, 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, and in close quarters for press coverage.
That last bit is where Williams will likely see the most use in the NFL thanks to his size, but his three years in Nashville showcased a versatile corner who can handle any assignment given to him.
SEC teams understood this. Jordan Ta’amu threw for more than 450 yards in his 2018 matchup against the Commodores, but he rarely even looked at Williams’ side of the field in the process. Wherever Vandy’s top corner was, Ole Miss deliberately shifted its offense to the other side of the field. The Rebels didn’t throw to anyone Williams had one-on-one coverage with until the fourth quarter of that game — and the play ended in a breakup.
DaMarkus Lodge eventually scored a touchdown in press coverage against Williams, but he needed a perfectly thrown ball and a circus catch to do so:
Williams is also a strong tackler, adding plenty of value against the run as he developed in Nashville. His big frame helps him shed blocking wideouts relatively easily, and he’s solid enough to bring down faster backs along the edge or blast between the hashes and ruin power back’s runs, too.
So why didn’t Williams get more Day 1 attention?
The biggest knock on Williams is a lack of elite top-line speed. His name faded away from the tail end of mock drafts early in March after his 4.64-second 40-yard dash time underwhelmed at the combine. He rectified that performance with a 4.50-second split at Vandy’s pro day weeks later, but it still casts a shadow across his overall draft profile — especially with faster corners with gaudier stats (LSU’s Greedy Williams, Washington’s Byron Murphy) available.
His play was mostly outstanding at Vanderbilt, but he also proved to be a boom-or-bust player in press coverage. There were certainly moments where he got overzealous in his course correction after making a mistake early in a play.
There’s some benefit to that — in that worst-case scenario you want a guy being aggressive and hoping the referees don’t notice rather than just getting burned — but it’s going to lead to a lot of flags in Williams’ rookie year. He also had several plays where he kept up with faster receivers downfield but failed to get his head back to the line of scrimmage to make a proper play on the ball, leading to both big plays and penalties downfield.
Despite contributing immediately in Nashville, Williams is still growing at the position. He’ll go from watching quarterbacks avoid his side of the field at Vanderbilt to get picked on immediately by veteran passers.
He should be able to hold his own, even as a rookie, but there will be a learning curve in the NFL.
So where does Williams fit?
SB Nation’s own Dan Kadar has Williams ranked No. 80 on his big board, which would project the Vandy product as a third-rounder. The NFL also sees him as a Day 2 pick, and he’ll be attending the festivities in his de facto hometown with his family when he learns what the next chapter in his football career holds:
We’ve added two more players to our @NFLDraft invite list, and both have Tennessee ties. Excited to announce that @MemphisFB RB Darrell Henderson and @VandyFootball CB JoeJuan Williams (a Nashville native) will be in Nashville with their families on Day 2 (Friday) of the draft.
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) April 19, 2019
His sliding draft stock means nearly every team in the league should have the opportunity to add him (sorry, Chicago). But teams with major, glaring needs at corner are more likely to take a more highly regarded prospect in the first round rather than hope Williams falls to them on Day 2. That could mean the Steelers and Raiders could have met their coverage needs before the second round.
So who’s left in the second wave of CB-deficient clubs? The Colts could use someone across from the newly re-signed Pierre Desir, and they’ve got a pair of second-round picks. The Chiefs were a candidate to take a cornerback in the first round until they traded that pick away in the deal for Frank Clark. Now, their first pick comes at No. 61 (and their second at No. 63).
The Bills have bigger holes to fill than cornerback in the first round, but Williams would be an outstanding complement to fellow former SEC star Tre’Davious White on Day 2. The Texans are hoping Bradley Roby will fix their secondary issues in 2019, but they’ll also be in the market for cornerback help throughout this year’s draft.
The Cowboys are interested, even if their social team isn’t exactly sure who Williams is:
(That’s a picture of tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn.)
Williams needs to be fine-tuned, but concerns about his athleticism are overblown. At his core, he’s a massive cornerback who runs well enough to keep up with deep threats while blocking out the sun in the red zone. There will be an adjustment period as he adapts to another tier of competition, but his ability to shut down his side of the field against teams like Mississippi, Kansas State, South Carolina, and Baylor showed just how valuable he can be.
Williams wasn’t a combine standout, but his three-year body of work at Vanderbilt and his fearlessness when it comes to negating whomever he’s assigned to make the Sherman comparisons apt. If he can level up his bump-and-run coverage game, he’ll be a game-changing force in the NFL.
And if he can’t, he’s still a massive cornerback who covers well enough near the line of scrimmage to completely derail opponents after they cross into field goal range.