NAPA – Karl Joseph has taken virtually every practice snap in Raiders training camp. The rookie safety has been a free-roaming fixture with the first unit, a thin black knee brace the lone reminder of an ACL torn nine months ago.
It gave way five games into his senior season at West Virginia, ending his college career while casting doubt on his draft position. The Raiders believed he’d re-gain full health posthaste, without lingering effects to hinder effectiveness. That’s why drafted Joseph No. 14 overall without reservation.
Joseph missed the offseason program but planned to return by training camp, a desire impossible to assume given the fickle nature of his rehab. Joseph is practicing without restriction and, despite missing OTAs and minicamp, has been a plug-and-play feature in the starting group.
“We’re going to throw him right in and let him compete,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “We expect him to grow every day. For all of us, we want to grow and develop and be the best we can be every day. Obviously a lot more of a spotlight goes on a guy like that taken in the first round. That’s part of the deal. I think he understands that. For us, what we’re asking him to do is come out here and be himself, and work his butt off every day. He’s done that at the start. We’re happy with the way he’s working.”
Joseph is in a stress-free space, comfortable due to hard work absorbing a Raiders defense designed to be learned simply and played fast.
The past year hasn’t been so easy.
Joseph’s injury was horribly timed. He was arguably the nation’s best college defender when his knee gave during a non-contact drill in a Mountaineers practice. He had five interceptions in four games, and was an intimidator in the secondary. The ligament tear brought an end to all that, and left a void typically filled by the game he loved. It remained through the NFL draft has Joseph sat and watched when he wanted to be active.
“This is what I've been doing my whole life,” Joseph said. “Having football being taken away from me makes me appreciate the game a lot more. I got frustrated during OTAs watching the guys out there and not being able to go out there and compete with them. I’m just happy and blessed to come back out on the field.”
His transition has gone well due to work ethic and resources around him. Coaches Marcus Robertson and Rod Woodson have guided this young talent, and 10th-year veteran Reggie Nelson has become an older brother willing to give advice and knowledge at every turn.
“He’s been in the league for a long time playing at a high level,” Joseph said. “Just watching him and playing with him and knowing he's right next to me is giving me a lot more confidence. It eliminates a lot of mistakes on my part as well, just because he knows what he's doing. Watching him helps a lot.”
The pairing should work out well, with Nelson able to cover deep and Joseph working as a big hitter underneath. That assumes, of course, that Joseph is worthy of a starting spot. Most seem convinced he will be.
Joseph carries high expectations into his rookie season. After months of being complimented by those around him – defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. calls him a “pack of dynamite” – one piece of praise stuck out.
Former All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins said Joseph was the player most like him, which really stuck considering Dawkins is one of his idols.
“That’s one of the guys I looked up to,” Joseph said. “When I first started playing the game, I used to watch his YouTube highlights all the time. I’d sit in front of the computer for hours just watching his highlights. So, that means a lot coming from him because he's one of the greatest to ever play the game.”