Once thought of as a player who may need some time to develop, Joseph was given the chance to compete as a rookie and he rewarded Lions coaches with a season to remember. Joseph showed consistent improvement throughout the season and looks to be a player who should have post-season recognitions on his goal list.
Let’s get started by taking a closer look at Aaron Rodgers’ daddy.
Expectations heading into 2022
With only one year of experience as a starting safety in college, Joseph was viewed as a developmental project with the potential to earn a starting role in 2023.
During training camp, Joseph’s experience in Illinois’ split-zone scheme would help him acclimate quickly to Detroit’s defensive concepts, and his ball skills were evident from the moment he stepped on the practice field, leading safeties coach Brian Duker to suggest Joseph was “ahead of where” coaches thought he would be.
Still, Joseph simply didn’t have enough snaps under his belt to justify a high-level contributing role and the plan was to allow him to “earn” time on the field as a subpackage specialist.
“Really, we go back to play time is earned,” Duker continued. “So if he does a good job and shows he’s really got value, we have a lot of packages, we’ve got a lot of different things we can do. So if he earns that, he really has a good — let’s say it’s third down and he can go get the ball and we want to put a bunch of DBs (defensive backs) on the field and he earns that spot, that would be a great opportunity for him and I’d be really excited to see him get the opportunity to go and do that.”
Actual role in 2022
17 games (14 starts): 878 defensive snaps played (77.3%)
- Third most on the Lions’ defense
- Third most amongst rookie safeties
Stats: 82 tackles, 8 pass breakups, 4 INTs, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery
PFF overall grade: 64.0 (37th amongst 56 safeties who played 800 defensive snaps)
PFF tackling grade: 69.7 (22nd, same parameters as above)
PFF coverage grade: 65.0 (33rd, same parameters as above)
When the season began, Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott were the Lions’ projected starters, but with Will Harris shifting to corner full-time and Ifeatu Melifonwu injured, Joseph found himself rising up the depth chart quickly. When Walker injured his Achilles in Week 3, the Lions held an internal competition between Joseph, a now somewhat healthy Melifonwu, and JuJu Hughes. The rookie won the job and never looked back, starting the next 14 games.
According to PFF, Joseph lined up at free safety 635 times (most amongst rookies), 127 in the slot, 108 in the box, and five at outside corner. So why did Joseph spend so much time at free safety (typically single-high)? Two reasons: Range and ball skills.
After a quiet first two games in the league, Joseph’s talent began to show after the team’s bye. In Weeks 7 and 8, Joseph forced fumbles against the Cowboys and Dolphins before announcing himself to the league in Week 9 against the Packers. Against Green Bay, then-quarterback Aaron Rodgers tested the rookie on several occasions and Joseph’s range answered the bell time and time again—recording 10 tackles, three pass deflections, and two interceptions.
“Kerby’s been—for three weeks now—he has not come off the field and we’re just letting him grow, but he’s been so close,” coach Dan Campbell said after the game. “I swear every week, we talk about, ‘Man, he is (close).’ The first time he missed one of those interceptions, he was about an inch away, and then the next one he was about half an inch away, and so now, he’s starting to feel it. He’s got some instincts to him. Some ball hog instincts, that was good to see.”
Joseph would add another interception two weeks later against the Giants, then recover a fumble against the Vikings in Week 14 and was quickly gaining national recognition. By mid-December, Joseph finished first at safety in fan-voting for the Pro Bowl but unfortunately fell short of receiving those honors once the player and coaches’ votes were tallied.
It’s hard to fault how the voting played out as not many players or coaches got a chance to see Joseph play on National TV with the Lions' schedule. But the NFL—fans, players, coaches, etc—surely all got to witness Joseph’s impact during the regular season finale.
Week 18 of the 2022-23 season will go down as an organization-altering game and Joseph was a massive part of that undertaking. He put on an absolute clinic against the Packers, with multiple game-altering plays, including intercepting Rodgers for the third time that season—effectively ending the quarterback’s career in Green Bay.
Kerby Joseph intercepts Aaron Rodgers for the third (!) time during his rookie season pic.twitter.com/YKFp2DRWlC— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) January 9, 2023
Joseph is a terrific example of what happens when a front office understands a player's “superpower” and coaches put that player in a position to succeed. Joseph’s ball skills are elite and the Lions knew they could be best utilized as a single-high safety.
“I’m not surprised about the success (of the Lions rookies),” general manager Brad Holmes said at his end-of-year press conference. “Now, you don’t know if Kerby Joseph’s going to pick off Aaron Rodgers three times in a season ... I can’t say we have that crystal ball, but we do know about who they were as football players. Like, we knew Kerby Joseph was a ball guy. We knew he was a ball hawk, we knew he had outstanding instincts to get the football. So, that’s not a surprise.”
Outlook for 2023
The Lions have almost completely overhauled their secondary this past offseason, adding three veteran defensive backs, getting Walker back from injury, and returning Jerry Jacobs.
“You get (Cameron) Sutton, you get (Emmanuel) Moseley back, and then having Deucey, CJ (Gardner-Johnson) with Tracy (Walker) and Kerby (Joseph) a year later, man I just – that’s a pretty good group,” Campbell said at OTAs.
Despite Walker and Joseph being the two returning projected starters at safety, the pair have actually never played a game together. But don’t expect them to take long to acclimate together, as the pair have been hanging out together for some time now and always seem to have great chemistry.
How fast the rest of the Lions' secondary builds chemistry will be a big factor in determining success on the field, but the early signs are encouraging as they were the dominant unit in spring practices.
Beyond establishing chemistry with his teammates, Joseph's biggest area of growth remains the same: gain experience and consistency.
“Like we see the plays (Joseph) is capable of, and now it is just being consistent, over and over,” Campbell said. “Here’s the thing, a little bit with Kerby, because he’s instinctive, he’s a good athlete, he’s rangy. 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. But that is all part of being a young player that has some ability and is learning to grow.”
While Joseph gains experience, look for coaches to continue to put him in favorable situations that feature his ball skills and his veteran teammates to help him grow his game.
“He doesn’t realize how good he is, truthfully,” Gardner-Johnson said at minicamp. “(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.”
With another year in the Lions system and veterans guiding him along the way, Joseph has a real chance to get Pro Bowl votes from more than just the fans this season.