Bill Belichick often says a player's biggest improvement comes in their second year. With a season of NFL football under their belts, players are often more comfortable and allow their abilities to take over. With that in mind we thought it would make sense to check in on several players entering Year 2 (and some others who have seen little playing time) to see how they're progressing in this strange offseason.
Like most Patriots fans, Joejuan Williams knows what the team's depth chart looks like at cornerback. It is arguably the deepest position on the team and one of the strongest groups in the league, and Williams hopes to continue to be part of that.
He also hopes to be a more active participant than he was last year as a rookie, when the second-round pick played sparingly behind a group led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Williams understands the situation playing with so many talented veterans, but rather than sulk he's instead leaned on his teammates for guidance.
"I want to be in the league for the long haul. Learning from those guys has been great. Those guys have been my big brothers," Williams began. "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.
"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. 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."
"Overall my rookie year was a big learning year for me," Williams continued. "I didn't play much at the beginning of the season and I started getting into the rotation on defense and special teams the last few games. That's when I got most of my snaps.
"But it also gave me a chance to look up to the guys in front of me, watching them and following them was very helpful. Slowly but surely each week you try to build, and you keep doing that and building on top of that and I would try to get one percent better. It was a big learning curve and I'm still learning now."
While Williams feels more comfortable with the defense, not much has changed in the secondary. Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones are all back, leaving little opportunity for Williams to carve out a more significant role than the one he filled as a rookie.
With that in mind, he has used the offseason to continue learning – not just his role but all of the roles in the secondary – in an effort to make himself more versatile. Williams played some safety last summer, and he's trying to acclimate himself to any and all coverage positions during this offseason of virtual learning.
"With the quarantine I feel like I've gotten so much better taking advantage of the time," Williams said. "I've been putting more work in with my body trying working on my flexibility. I've been able to get yoga in two times a day every day.
"Football-wise I've been getting in the playbook more and learning more than just corner. I've had more time to study and getting everything in, and I've been spending more time with the family."
Like everyone else, the challenges of the offseason have created some issues for Williams. But that hasn't stopped him from being productive. Shortly after the season ended, he returned to Nashville and completed his degree in sociology at Vanderbilt. Then he headed out to Phoenix to begin his workouts, where he joined wide receiver N'Keal Harry at times.
"Graduating was a great moment for me," Williams said. "I wish I could have walked across the stage for my mom. They gave us the option to do it next year in 2021, but I finished out and got my diploma. It was a blessing to get a Vanderbilt degree from a top 15 university. It was hard, especially after a long season, to come back and finish out. But that was my priority."
As for the offseason work, Williams misses the on-field reps and the interaction with coaches and teammates that comes with it. He explained that for some players the learning process requires more than just film study, but given the circumstances there isn't much more that can be done.
In the meantime he's looking forward to getting back to Foxborough for training camp in July, and once the season starts he's hoping to resume a tradition he started regularly last year by watching some local high school games on Friday nights. His general routine is to hit Twitter to solicit a good matchup in the area, then he likes to keep to himself and watch from afar.
"I've always been a fan of football since I was 5 years old," he said of the practice. "I just love watching football. Whether it's watching the Foxboro Warriors across the street play or practice or some other team. "It's always been cool to watch them play and compete. Football has always been my love."