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C.J. Gardner-Johnson: Kerby Joseph is one of NFL’s best young safeties

C.J. Gardner-Johnson already sees greatness in Detroit Lions second-year safety Kerby Joseph—just a couple weeks into OTAs and minicamp.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions are expecting bigger things out of their secondary in 2023. A unit that ranked among the NFL’s worst last year, the defensive backfield has been buffed with free agent additions C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Cameron Sutton, and Emmanuel Moseley. However, Detroit also has some home-grown talent that should help the unit achieve great improvement. Look no further than second-year safety Kerby Joseph.

Joseph was one of the best players on the field during Lions OTAs and minicamp over the past month. Gardner-Johnson, who knows a little bit about good safety play, has already seen greatness in the young safety after just a few weeks together.

“He’s a second-year player, right? He doesn’t realize how good he is, truthfully,” Gardner-Johnson said last week. “(He’s) one of the best young safeties in the game. He already has, but when he really understands that you ain’t out here by yourself anymore, you’ve got help, you’ve got veterans around you, you can learn the game a little bit more, you’re going to see a whole different Kerby Joseph.”

Last year, Joseph—the team’s third-round pick in 2022—had a very promising rookie season. He tallied four interceptions, eight pass breakups and two forced fumbles after being suddenly thrust into the lineup due to injury. That said, there were some inconsistencies in his game. Coach Dan Campbell said, particularly, he would break off on his own rather than stick to his assignment—a normal mistake for a rookie.

“Because he’s instinctive, he’s a good athlete, he’s rangey, there are times where he could veer off a little bit and maybe go out of the wheelhouse of what we want, just a little bit,” Campbell said. “But that is all part of being a young player that has some ability and is learning to grow.”

There is nothing more impressive from Joseph’s rookie season than his play against future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers. Joseph picked him off three times in 2022, and as he once said, it probably should have been five or six interceptions.

Gardner-Johnson explained how that sort of thing doesn’t happen to normal or average players.

“He’s a ballhawk. I picked off Tom Brady twice in one season. He picked off Aaron Rodgers twice in one season, twice in one game,” Gardner-Johnson said. “That’s hard to do on a quarterback that’s at a level you expect to not make a mistake. For him to take that step, he’s just scratching the surface.”

Having veterans like Gardner-Johnson and Sutton around is no coincidence. The Lions have made it a goal to complement their young players with seasoned veterans to get them on the right development path. Joseph is already seeing those benefits.

“The expectations raises, but the knowledge also raises,” Joseph said. “Because them guys just be telling everybody—the whole room is learning. Not only me, but the whole room is learning from everybody. So it’s just an abundant amount of information that you can take and you can use while you’re on the field.”

Joseph says there are plenty of things he’s learning and improving upon, but he didn’t want to “give out the sauce.” That said, he wanted to make it clear he’s chasing greatness.

“Just know that I’m coming hard this year,” Joseph said. “I want to be great. I want my teammates to be great. We’re all going to be great. That’s why we’re out here working.”

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