Throughout the entire offseason, Buffalo Bills fans have debated which players and which position the team should select with their first round pick and it’s essentially been narrowed down to either wide receiver, linebacker or defensive line. While those positions definitely need to be addressed, there’s a wildcard player that I believe could be an ideal fit for Rex Ryan’s defense with the talent worthy of the No. 19 overall pick. That player is West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, who recently made a pre-draft visit with the Buffalo Bills.
Before you start angrily crafting your tweets to me, let me state my case for the Bills selecting Karl Joseph and why I don’t think it’s as far-fetched to select a safety with their first round pick.
Bills Have Major Question Marks at Safety
The Bills’ top safety, Aaron Williams, suffered a season-ending and potentially career threatening neck injury last season, and while the team has said that he’s cleared to play, he stated that he won’t really know how he feels until he takes that first hit.
Behind him is 30-year old Corey Graham who converted from cornerback to safety last year and really struggled in coverage, allowing 35 receptions on 48 targets for 547 yards and six touchdowns. He’s due $10.15 million over the next two seasons.
After Williams and Graham, the Bills safety group is made up of Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks and recent free agent additions Robert Blanton and Colt Anderson. That’s pretty scary.
Rex Ryan’s Defense Needs Quality Defensive Backs, Not Just Cornerbacks
Rex Ryan made his name as a defensive mastermind with his hybrid, pressure-based defensive scheme that features multiple defensive fronts and exotic blitz packages. In order to blitz as much as Ryan likes to, your cornerbacks obviously have to be able to play tight man coverage, but you need a safety that can play the deep middle and cover a lot of ground to make up for the extra space vacated by the blitzer.
The majority of offenses are in 11 personnel with three wide receivers, so the distinction between “free” and “strong” safety is really disappearing. Teams are trending away from having one cover guy and one box guy, and the position is really interchangeable so you need someone with versatility that can do both.
Rex Ryan Wants Physicality at Safety
Going back to his days as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan’s defenses have always had a physical playmaker at the safety position, from current Bills’ defensive backs coach Ed Reed to players like LaRon and Dawan Landry, James Ihedigbo, Kerry Rhodes, Brodney Pool and his 2014 first-round pick Calvin Pryor.
When the Jets selected Pryor, Rex Ryan emphasized his love for physicality at the position, stating
“The first series of a game, he chases a guy down for a hit for a loss. Then he gets the knock out hit on a running back. He knocks the guy cold and then he has the one-handed interception against Central Florida, all in one series. I was like, ‘That was a pretty good start,’ I think when I watched it.
The thing that I’m excited about is, John hits it on the head, this young man plays like a Jet. We pride ourselves in being a physical football team and he fits that profile. This young man is an enforcer.
You see how some of those kind of plays and hits and everything else, how it can impact the game. All you have to do is look at the Super Bowl and the play of (Seattle Seahawks SS Kam) Chancellor back there, and (FS) Earl Thomas. It’s how we want to play defense”
This looks like an enforcer to me.
Karl Joseph is a player that *stylistically* reminds me of a mix between Tyrann Mathieu (size, versatility) and Earl Thomas (range, physicality). This is not to say that Karl Joseph will be a perennial All-Pro like those two, but his style of play is very reminiscent of that.
Let’s go to the tape to break down what Karl Joseph brings to the table
Breaking Down Why Karl Joseph is Worthy of a Top-20 Pick
Karl Joseph was a dominant force for the West Virginia defense since he stepped onto campus in 2012. As a true freshman, Joseph was named a freshman All-American after recording 102 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, one sack, two interceptions, six pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
He started 41 consecutive games and was named 1st team All-Big 12 in 2014, and was off to a great start to the 2015 season before tearing his ACL during a practice just four games into the 2015 season. In those four games, Karl Joseph—a two-time team captain and an Honor Roll student—picked off five passes and made 20 tackles with seven run stops. For contrast, Ohio State safety Vonn Bell, who’s widely viewed as a top-tier safety in the 2016 NFL Draft finished the entire season with six.
He finished his collegiate career with 280 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, nine interceptions, 14 pass breakups, seven forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
Karl Joseph plays much bigger than his 5’10” 205-pound frame would suggest, playing with intensity while delivering a knockout hit seemingly every quarter of a game. But Joseph is so much more than just a knockout artist. He has the speed and range to play the single-high/centerfield free safety spot in Cover 0, 1 and 3, but at West Virginia he played everywhere, lining up in the box as an extra linebacker, in the slot as a press corner and even on the line of scrimmage as a blitzer.
Karl Joseph Run Support
Despite his smaller stature, Karl Joseph is one of the most physical and productive run stopping safeties in the 2016 draft class. In 2014, Joseph made 60 of his 90 tackles against the run with 32 stops. No matter where Joseph is lined up before the snap, he has a knack for getting involved in the play.
Against Alabama in 2014, Karl Joseph’s run stopping ability was really put to the test. The Crimson Tide run the ball as well as any team in the country and fielded a backfield with big, powerful running backs in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. For the majority of the game, Joseph played in the box or at the line of scrimmage and proved that his size was a non-issue, recording 18 (!!!) tackles and making some big hits.
In the following play, Joseph is lined up deep just out of the broadcast. When Derrick Henry—who has a 45-pound weight advantage over Joseph—gets the handoff, he gets downhill quickly and takes a good angle to get in the gap and bring Henry down for a stop.
In the box, Joseph shows good patience and agility to maneuver through traffic before shooting a gap and bringing down the running back.
Here, he’s on the line of scrimmage and squeezes through the offensive line to record an assisted tackle at the line of scrimmage.
He’s got great downhill acceleration and closing speed to fill from a deep alignment, diagnosing plays and exploding towards the ball carrier.
When Karl Joseph is assigned to be the last line of defense in a run situation, he still makes impact plays as he does here against Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine. Joseph’s power is put on full display here as both players are running full speed, but Joseph just de-cleats Perine with a devastating blow with ease.
Joseph can get overaggressive and trust his speed too much, taking bad angles to the running back. Against Maryland, he runs in a flat line to the running back and by the time Joseph changes direction, it’s too late and the running back takes it 45-yards. Thankfully, his teammate punched the ball out through the endzone, resulting in a touchback or it would’ve been six points directly attributed to Joseph’s pursuit.
One major issue that Joseph has to fix is his tackling in the run game. He missed 17 tackles in 2014 with 14 against the run. Too often you’ll see him leave his feet to make the big hit or dive for ankles rather than get his feet set, square his shoulders and make the form tackle.
Joseph’s tackling seemed to improve during the 2015 season, missing just two in his four games played, which would put him on pace for about six on the year, but it’s definitely a question mark that needs to be addressed.
Karl Joseph Pass Coverage
Karl Joseph doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves when it comes to his ability in coverage because of his highlight hits, but he’s really one of the rangiest and instinctive safeties in the 2016 NFL Draft class and has underrated ball skills. In 2014 and 2015, Karl Joseph allowed just 23 receptions on 46 targets while surrendering just two touchdowns and picking off six passes.
Here’s where my Tyrann Mathieu/ Earl Thomas comparison from earlier (if you’ve made it this far) comes into play.
Joseph is comfortable in both man and zone coverage with the speed to cover a lot of ground. He’s got great footwork and is fluid when transitioning out of his backpedal to going downhill. He’s instinctive and shows good awareness, breaking on routes in front of him while being able to separate the ball from the receiver with his hitting ability.
The following play encapsulates Joseph’s coverage ability and physical mentality in one rep. Lined up about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, Joseph backpedals into a deep 1/3rd drop. He reads the go route to the sideline and immediately explodes, showing off his speed and range to get across the field before delivering a hit that causes the wide receiver to drop the pass. It’s a fantastic play that not many safeties currently in the National Football League can make.
Look at the footwork in his backpedal, the acceleration in his break and the explosion through contact.
In this play against Maryland, Karl Joseph is lined up as an inside linebacker and steps down at the play fake before flipping his hips and running down the sideline with the running back on a wheel route. Joseph maintains inside leverage, showing the understanding of using the sideline as an “extra defender” before positioning himself in front of the running back and out-leaping him to make an interception in the endzone.
Here Karl Joseph is lined up in the slot to the top of the formation. It’s 2nd-and-4 so the Terrapins are just looking to move the chains. The slot receiver is running a quick out route to the sticks, which is the quarterback’s primary read but Joseph’s tight coverage forces him to go to his next progression. There isn’t enough time and West Virginia’s defense gets a coverage sack.
Lined up in the slot again, Joseph shows his speed to run with receivers in man coverage while maintaining inside leverage and sticking to his man’s inside hip.
Joseph has great ball skills, noted by his nine interceptions and 14 pass breakups. He understands leverage, anticipates routes and is explosive in his breaks and is athletic enough to out-jump receivers for the ball.
Here against Oklahoma, Joseph is on the edge showing blitz. At the snap he drops to a curl/flat zone, getting in front of the receiver for the easy pick. I think Baker Mayfield was anticipating him blitzing, so it was a bad throw, but Joseph did a good job positioning himself to prevent the receiver from having a chance at making a play.
Joseph’s ability to jump routes and position himself in front of the receiver is put on display again in the following play against Georgia Southern for his second interception of the game.
Here’s another awful, off-target pass but Karl Joseph makes a ridiculous play to contort his body and make a fantastic play to make his third interception of the game.
Joseph’s size is really the only issue he has in pass coverage as he may struggle to match up with the ever-growing tight ends in the league.
Closing Arguments for Karl Joseph at No. 19 Overall
If it weren’t for Joseph’s torn ACL, there wouldn’t even be a debate about him being a top-15, maybe even top-10 prospect in this draft class. There isn’t structural or nerve damage that we know of; it’s a simple ACL injury. The only reports on Karl Joseph’s injury/rehab status is that he may not be ready for the start of training camp. Last year, the Rams selected Todd Gurley with the No. 10 overall pick knowing that he wouldn’t be ready for the season opener, let alone the start of training camp, so I don’t see why that should prevent you from taking a top-tier prospect.
Versatility is paramount in the modern NFL, with defenses playing nickel for 65% of the snaps. Karl Joseph has a diverse skill set and can fill a variety of roles within a defense which would allow some creativity as far as personnel groupings go.
Defensive line and wide receiver are definitely two positions the Buffalo Bills need to address, but those are the deepest positions in the 2016 NFL Draft and it’s likely that there will be starting-caliber players available as far as the third round.
Linebacker is also a need, but not necessarily an immediate one given the signing of Zach Brown and the likely improvement in Preston Brown’s play after a year playing in the new defensive scheme.
Finally, Karl Joseph is a flat out stud and a player that sets the tone for a defense. He’s a high character kid by all accounts and would be a major upgrade to a defensive unit that finished in the bottom half of the league in pass defense, while providing additional value as a run defender.