If Karl Joseph hadn’t torn his anterior cruciate ligament last season, he might be considered a top-15 pick. The only real weakness in Joseph’s game, other than the medical reports on the ACL injury, is his size. At 5 feet 10, 205 pounds, Joseph is slightly undersize for a modern safety. However, his physical style negates those concerns.
Joseph is a hard-hitting, play-making safety who can just about do it all. He has the physicality to play in the box, the range to play as a single high safety and man-coverage ability to hold up covering the slot. He makes a number of eye-catching plays a game, but this play against Oklahoma stood out over everything:
Here, Joseph lines up 12 yards off the line of scrimmage on the far hash marks. As the ball is snapped, Joseph drops towards the middle of the field, acting as the single deep safety. As he drops, he keeps his eyes in the backfield, watching the quarterback to find where the ball is going. The quarterback leads him to the sideline on a deep pass. Joseph stays on top of the route and breaks on it, going from the middle of the field all the way to the sideline. He arrives just as the ball does, landing a vicious hit on the wide receiver that forces the ball out to break up the pass.
Highlight reel hits like that were a regular occurrence for Joseph, who often walks the line between legal and illegal hits. He’ll likely get called for penalties for big hits like that in the NFL, with the league looking to improve player safety. So that is something Joseph will have to consider as he transitions to the NFL. However, the type of range on display from Joseph was incredibly impressive, regardless of the slightly lofty throw. Any safety who can cover that type of ground will catch the eye of NFL scouts.
His coverage ability isn’t just limited to playing deep in the middle of the field. Joseph has a good understanding of zone coverage, particularly underneath coverages.
This time, Joseph aligns much closer to the line of scrimmage, almost appearing to be an edge rusher. But at the snap, Joseph drops into zone coverage. He appears to have curl-flat responsibilities, meaning he drops to cover a curl route and breaks on anything in the flat. Oklahoma runs a curl route to Joseph’s side. He sinks to the depth of the first-down marker and then gets his eyes on the quarterback. That leads him to benefit from a poor throwing decision. Joseph sinks further to the curl receiver before making a great leap up to pluck the ball out of the air.
Despite his size, Joseph can leap and “high-point” the football. That enables him to compete with taller receivers on jump balls if he positions himself correctly.
On this play, Joseph is in man coverage on the running back. Maryland runs a play-action fake, trying to leak the running back out on a wheel route. But Joseph doesn’t bite, staying with the back throughout the route. Under pressure, the quarterback pulls the trigger on the throw. Joseph forces the back towards the sideline, securing the route before turning his head to locate the ball. He finds it in the air and then attacks it, leaping well above the taller back to make the interception.
Joseph is comfortable covering deep, playing underneath zones and covering running backs out of the backfield. The one question I have with Joseph is his ability to cover the slot. He has shown he can do it from time to time, but he has also struggled from time to time.
Here we see Joseph lined up over the slot receiver. Joseph reads the route the whole way, stopping his backpedal early and opening himself up to break on the out route. As soon as the receiver makes his break, Joseph undercuts the throw and makes the interception.
Plays like that suggest Joseph is a smart player who recognizes route concepts and team tendencies, which gives him a good idea which route the opposing receiver is running. That stands him in good stead against slot receivers. However, there are times he can get beaten while covering the slot.
This time Joseph faces Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, who many consider a second-round slot receiver who can have an impact early in his career. Shepard runs a good route, selling Joseph to the outside with his stem before cutting inside. Joseph gets a little too handsy, grabbing and holding on to Shepard. In the NFL, he can’t maintain that type of contact past the first five yards. To his credit, Joseph does a good job recovering and mirroring Shepard’s cut back to the quarterback, giving him little separation. But in the NFL, that would have drawn a flag.
I think Joseph can hold up in coverage against most slot receivers, but he might have a few struggles here and there. As a safety, he’ll primarily be asked to play deep or underneath zone coverages and not as much man coverage. With his type of range and hitting ability, I like Joseph most as a true free safety who roams in the middle of the field.
The concerns over Joseph’s size relate to his ability to defend the run. NFL teams will worry that he could get caught on bigger blockers and not be able to disengage.
Joseph lines up as a dime linebacker here. Oklahoma runs the ball, with the left guard working up to Joseph on the second level. The left guard doesn’t make a particularly convincing block, but Joseph can’t manage to get off it. The play results in the running back taking it 35 yards for a touchdown.
While teams may be concerned about his ability to get off blocks, Joseph is actually an excellent run defender. He reads plays very well and is quick to close distance between himself and the ball carrier.
Maryland opts to run the ball on fourth and one on this play. They run an option play, with the quarterback drawing in the edge defender before pitching the ball to the running back. The back appears to have a clean run for the first down before Joseph appears and makes the tackle for a two-yard loss.
It was an excellent read by Joseph, who was quick to break from the middle of the field and get to the edge to cover the pitch. He made another strong play against the run on a similar play against Georgia Southern:
Georgia Southern runs a triple option, with the quarterback running a traditional read-option play with a pitch option if he keeps it. Joseph diagnoses the play quickly, working to the edge to cover the pitch. As the play develops, Joseph faces a two-on-one situation. The quarterback has the ball, but he can’t allow the pitch to the edge. He makes sure to take away the pitch, but as soon as the quarterback tucks the ball to break up the field, Joseph closes on him. He makes the tackle, keeping the gain to a minimum.
There’s a lot to like about Karl Joseph’s game. He’s an incredibly versatile safety who can play a variety of roles. I think his best role would be as a pure free safety in a base defense, but he could easily play more of an in-the-box role. Where he gets drafted will largely depend on his medical checks. Some reports suggest he’ll be back in time for training camp, meaning he wouldn’t miss too much. If those reports are true, I believe Joseph is worthy of a first-round pick. But if there is any doubts with regards to his injury, then Joseph could fall into the second round.
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