We had an inkling that Joejuan Williams might show up in front of a crowd that included family and friends from his hometown of Nashville. But we didn't know he'd be on the field quite as often as he was Saturday night against the Titans.
The second-round corner, who stayed close to home when he chose Vanderbilt coming out of high school, ended up starting for the Patriots on the outside, he stayed out there for much of the game, and he checked Tennessee's top wideout Corey Davis at times.
Davis gave Stephon Gilmore -- the best corner in football in 2018 -- fits in their matchup last season, but Williams handled the challenge nicely. On two targets to Davis, Williams didn't allow a catch, and he made an impressive pass-breakup when he stuck to Davis' out-route, then used his 6-foot-4 frame to get a hand in the passing lane.
"It was just great competition at the end of the day," Williams said. "Getting reps with [Davis] in practice and getting reps with him in the game . . . He's a great player and it was great to compete against him."
After what was likely his best week of practice as a pro, Williams finished strong. On Monday, in pads against his own teammates, he picked off two passes and batted away another. He flashed good ball skills again during joint sessions with the Titans, and then did the same under the lights.
What a difference a week makes. Against the Lions at Ford Field in New England's preseason opener, Williams lost contain on a run play to his side of the field, and then when he caught up to the runner he threw him to the ground out of bounds after the play was over. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty was tacked onto an already long gain, and Williams suddenly had a stereotypical "rookie mistake" on his resume.
But after Saturday night's performance, for Williams and others, it seems as though the cornerback picture is coming into clearer focus.
Gilmore, of course, is safe as the team's go-to No. 1 cover man. Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones seem very safe as well as neither has played in the first two preseason games. Both get first-team reps in practice, and both signed new deals -- Jones is playing on a restricted free-agent tender -- this offseason.
Then there's JC Jackson and Keion Crossen. Crossen looks like a long-term special-teams maven, who's spot on a team that values the kicking game as much as it does could very well be safe. Jackson should be safe as well after a strong rookie campaign that saw him earn a starting role late in the season. He's been much more active this summer -- 38 snaps in two games -- than others who are in the starting-lineup conversation. Still, despite being flagged for a 27-yard pass-interference penalty, he feels like a lock.
What's fascinating about Williams is that in the last week he's made a pretty clear statement: Against certain types of receivers -- Davis is 6-3, 209 pounds -- he can be a matchup weapon. The second-rounder taken one year before Williams, Duke Dawson, meanwhile, hasn't made any similar proclamations during camp. It's easy to see a potential role for Williams. Dawson's requires more squinting. The second-year player out of Florida hasn't had many memorable positive moments during practices, and he was in coverage on a 21-yard completion to Kalif Raymond Saturday.
Are we reading too much into one performance for Williams at a stadium that might've provided him a little extra motivation? Don't think so -- even if the second half of that sentence might be true.
"It was very cool to be here at the Titans facility," he said. "Something I grew up and I looked up to. I supported the Titans since I was a kid. At the end of the day, it was surreal to be back here, be in this locker room and be on that field and just play against them."
Surreal as it may have been, the reality is he could be an important piece in the Patriots defensive backfield this year, with a defined role. That's something not everyone in the Patriots corner group, no matter where they were drafted, can say at the moment.
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