Each year, teams will seemingly take NFL prospects earlier than expected. This happens for a number of reasons, but generally comes down to how their draft board was playing out at the time.
For the New England Patriots, this is how their board fell when it was all said and done.
Round 1, Pick 32: N’Keal Harry, WR, Arizona State
Round 2, Pick 45: Joejuan Williams, CB, Vanderbilt
Round 3, Pick 77: Chase Winovich, EDGE, Michigan
Round 3, Pick 87: Damien Harris, RB, Alabama
Round 3, Pick 101: Yodny Cajuste, OT, West Virginia
Round 4, Pick 118: Hjalte Froholdt, IOL, Arkansas
Round 4, Pick 133: Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn
Round 5, Pick 159: Byron Cowart, DL, Maryland
Round 5, Pick 163: Jake Bailey, P, Stanford
Round 7, Pick 252: Ken Webster, CB, Mississippi
My Patriots Draft Mulligan: CB Joejuan Williams for TE Irv Smith Jr.
Patriots traded up in the 2nd round for Vanderbilt cornerback JoeJuan Williams. While Williams has upside because of his size (6’4, 211 pounds), New England likely made the move for him because they only had a few options at cornerback that they liked.
Curiously, New England failed to address the tight end position during the 2019 NFL Draft. After the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have added some low-risk veterans, but no player with the ceiling of a plus-starter. Surely they were expected to select a tight end at some point, but waiting until free agency to sign undrafted rookie Andrew Beck.
With the luxury of hindsight, one draft “mulligan” that I would perform for the Patriots would be swapping out JoeJuan Williams for Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. It was impossible to know how the rest of the draft was going to play out when the Patriots drafted Williams at 45th overall, but knowing that New England would fail to add a tight end while drafting a cornerback, a position that they’re a bit more set at, doesn’t sit right with me.
I was admittedly a fan of Smith as a prospect, as I saw a young player with straight-line speed and plus run blocking. He used his speed to separate well in his route running, but was especially dominant in the open field. Adding his complete game to New England’s offense, at a position where they’re particularly mediocre, seemed like a match made in heaven.
When it comes to projecting Williams, I’m generally wary of cornerbacks who don’t test well in the 40-yard dash. Athletic testing isn’t the end all-be all of player evaluation, but it serves a purpose for meeting thresholds. Only 1 starting cornerback in the NFL ran a slower 40-yard dash time than Williams’ 4.64s performance, and that is Josh Norman. Among the other 95 starting cornerbacks in the NFL, only two ran similar 40 times (4.60s - 4.64s), Trumaine Johnson and Levi Wallace. It’s not that Williams can’t be a starter, especially if his technique is sound, but he’s a work in progress in that area as well.
Williams is a converted wide receiver, and you can see that in his footwork during press coverage. With too many false steps and a lack of makeup speed, I’m not sure he’s ever going to be a starting boundary cornerback.
If both JoeJuan Williams and Irv Smith Jr. reach their ceilings, I feel as though it will be Smith who makes the bigger impact. Playing a position of need currently on the Patriots depth chart, I feel as though he’d be the perfect “mulligan” selection.
I’ll be rooting for JoeJuan Williams to turn into the player that New England believes he can become, and it’s entirely possible that my opinion will be proven wrong. But this is a fun exercise to see how draft evaluations and plans would differ, and will be interesting to look back on in a number of years.
For more information on the Patriots tight end situation, check out my Six Rings podcast (episode 2 - also available on Spotify) where I broke down the strengths and weakness of each tight end on the depth chart.