ALAMEDA – Reggie Nelson and Marcus Gilchrist sat atop the Raiders safety rotation to start this season. Erik Harris had earned some opportunities over the summer, was working in with are typically three-down starting spots.
Karl Joseph was in the fourth spot, draft status be damned. The Raiders’ 2016 first-round pick was said to have struggled making accurate reads and checks in a new defensive system. He wasn’t playing much the first two weeks, and then suffered a hamstring injury in Week 3 that kept him out three games. He returned after the bye to find himself on the trading block, an unwelcome turn he’s happy never became an actual deal.
He’s been solid since the trade deadline passed, especially after entering the starting lineup on Nov. 11.
Joseph has added toughness and physicality to the defensive front as a rover who can move and play all around the field.
“He’s been a really good open field tackler,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “I think he’s showing really good range. He’s recognizing plays and he’s making plays. That’s exciting. He’s getting better and better in this defense.”
The third sentence of Gruden’s quote was a perceived weakness. Showing progress in that area has made Joseph a playmaker the Raiders expected when taking him in the first round.
His size presents a disadvantage in some coverage matchups, but the Raiders are doing well to avoid putting him in bad spots. He’s being given a chance to shine, and has taken advantage.
“I'm just trying to get better every game, every week, every practice,” Joseph said after Sunday’s 40-33 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. “You just have to keep growing as a player. I'm starting to establish myself more as a role in the defense. Just have to keep building on it. Everything is about wins in this league. We just have to keep getting better, build on this.”
The back end has gotten better with time, as Gareon Conley and Daryl Worley playing well. Rashaan Melvin has his moments, and Joseph brings a new and vital element to proceedings.
He’s a thumper, something the Raiders have missed in recent seasons. He carried that reputation out from West Virginia, but is out to prove he’s more than just a heavy hitter.
He has been better in coverage and strong playing the run, with seven “run stops” tackles Pro Football Focus considers an offensive failure on the ground. He has 18 tackles in this four-game run as a starter, with just one catch allowed.
He had a beauty on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, standing up Chiefs rusher Spencer Ware with a vicious blow. He almost got Ware again on fourth down, but a direct snap to him created just enough misdirection to get past the goal line.
Joseph also just missed an interception against the Chiefs, one that bothered him after the Chiefs loss. That fits Joseph’s personality. He’s critical of his own work, and knows he isn’t playing perfect football.
Even strides are important at this stage of a lost season, as Joseph is already trying to carve out a spot on next year’s squad.
“He has a lot of talent, and I think he’s taking advantage of his opportunities,” Gruden said. “He’s healthy. He’s been able to practice. I think his preparation has a lot to do with his performance. He’s strung some really good weeks together for us.”