Kerby Joseph, Illinois S | NFL Draft Scouting Report

After a breakout season in 2021, does Illinois safety Kerby Joseph have the momentum behind him to become an early NFL Draft pick?

You can often count on production as a strong indicator for future NFL talent, and that’s especially true in the case of Illinois safety and NFL Draft prospect Kerby Joseph. A late riser and Senior Bowl standout, just how high is Joseph’s ceiling in the 2022 NFL Draft this coming April?

Kerby Joseph NFL Draft Profile

  • Position: Safety
  • School: Illinois
  • Current Year: Senior
  • Height: 6’0 5/8″
  • Weight: 200 pounds
  • Wingspan: 79 5/8″
  • Length: 33 1/4″
  • Hand: 10 1/2″

Kerby Joseph Scouting Report

The secondary has always taken on great importance for NFL defenses. But in the new age of passing-oriented offensive attacks, there’s a particularly strong emphasis on defensive back talent. Cohesion is always important, no matter how talented your secondary is. But there are certain plays that only the more talented players can make.

In a way, that criteria is what separates ordinary safeties from the best of the best. Do you have the talent to make momentum-changing, game-defining plays? Upon viewing of his tape, Joseph has that talent. But how does he profile overall as a prospect, and what is his ceiling? That’s what we’re going to find out.

Joseph’s athletic profile

As is often the case with game-changing prospects, their athletic traits are what set them apart. Joseph’s physical profile is, in fact, quite enticing. The Illinois safety stands at around 6’1″, 200 pounds. With that frame, he has 33 1/8″ arms. That’s elite length for a defensive back, and it affords him a massive disruption radius at the catch point, as well as impressive leverage as a tackler.

Beyond his frame, Joseph is an explosive athlete with long strides. He can accelerate quickly and easily track receivers downfield. When he opens his hips and actively pursues plays, he hits a great second gear. With his explosiveness and speed, Joseph possesses high-end range. The Illinois safety can close in from sideline to sideline and erase space for offensive players. He also closes ground quickly when triggering downhill on ball carriers.

In shorter areas, Joseph also impresses. The Illinois safety has good short-area quickness and twitch, which he can use to adjust and maintain his tackling angles in pursuit, as well as recover after misses. Joseph also has exceptionally fluid hips. He can stack direction changes and explode into space, and he has good balance on his backpedal. He can sink his hips to pinch angles and keep his speed in space.

Expanding on Joseph’s length, the Fighting Illini product can use his length to stack and shed receivers climbing to block him. Additionally, he’s shown he can actively wrap up as a tackler with his long frame.

Execution beyond the physical traits

Joseph underpins his game with great overall awareness. He’s an active processor and communicator pre-snap, and he’s also an adaptable player post-snap. He recognizes motions, but he also knows offensive tendencies and can maintain discipline when being baited. He’s shown he can process play fakes and react quickly.

Joseph has constant field vision, and he’s instinctive with how he positions himself on the back end. He can leverage his hips on his backpedal to wall off routes coming downfield. He’s also able to adapt mid-rep. He can peel off deep routes and move upfield on scramble drills, but he’s also shown he can magnetize to routes and quickly pass them off to other defenders. All this, and Joseph still actively follows the quarterback’s eyes to judge intent, and he can quickly flip his hips and close off windows.

Going further, Joseph can use deception and move around the defense. He takes a lot of reps at single-high, but he can also play two-high and in the box. He has the range to feign the blitz, then bail and quickly recover positioning downfield. Moreover, in the box, Joseph is patient yet urgent. Sifting through congestion, he’s still able to read the field, stay square, and flow to the ball using his lateral agility.

Even after all this, Joseph’s best trait might be his playmaking ability at the catch point. He’s strong and competitive in contested situations, and he has excellent ball skills, ball-tracking ability, and body control in midair. But he can be a playmaker on the ground as well. He has the strength, wingspan, and spatial awareness to make tackles in open space.

Areas for improvement

Joseph put up some strong 2021 tape, but there are still a few areas where he can improve. Although Joseph has strong instincts and awareness, he is prone to slower reactions at times. He can be a tick late responding to misdirections, and he can show better anticipation based on formations. Additionally, Joseph is occasionally late to act on information that he processes. He can freeze in his stance when reading the QB and sometimes fails to recognize deep route concepts and anticipate angles.

Joseph’s inconsistencies with reaction seem to stem more from stimuli than processing. He processes well but does second-guess himself at times. He can be more efficient breaking on passes, as he sometimes hesitates while reading the QB. Similarly, Joseph can be a bit late recognizing runs and breaking back upfield, and he can also get drawn upfield by play-action and vacate zones. Moreover, Joseph has room to be a bit smoother out of his backpedal at times. He can also better quicken his strides to maximize his range in open space, and he can be a bit grabby in man coverage.

In the box, there are issues as well. Joseph sometimes loses his balance at the tackle point and lets players slip away, and he also freezes up occasionally. He can dish out hard hits, and he’s a physical player, but there are times when he doesn’t effectively carry his momentum. In a similar vein, while Joseph can stack and shed receivers, he doesn’t always drive through blocks, and he can be rerouted if he’s not careful.

Joseph’s 2022 NFL Draft scouting report overview

There are a few things to clean up with Joseph, but the upside is undeniable. Most encouraging is Joseph’s strong pre-snap and post-snap processing, as well as his ability to maintain space and adapt in zone coverage. But his playmaking ability also steals the show. Joseph is an excellent athlete with the explosiveness and range to cover large amounts of ground. He can rise vertically and attack passes with his body control and ball-tracking ability, and he fights for the ball until the very end of the rep.

Joseph is one of the few safeties who can effectively play single-high and flourish there. But he’s not confined to that role. Joseph can play two-high, as well as line up in the box. He’s not a liability from a physicality standpoint, showing he can fight blocks, swim through congestion, and make open-field tackles. Moreover, with his fluid hips, length, and short-range athleticism, he translates well in man coverage as well.

After a strong Senior Bowl showing, Joseph is a likely Day 2 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. And if he tests well at the NFL Combine, that could drive him up to the top-75 or top-50 range. Joseph has a rare combination of explosiveness, length, playmaking instincts, and processing ability, and that combination affords him upside as an impact starter at safety in the NFL.

Joseph’s Player Profile

Joseph’s career has been peculiar to this point. It’s rare for players to break out so suddenly and dramatically in their final pre-professional season, but that’s exactly what Joseph did in 2021. Before that point, he’d been largely overlooked and counted out.

In the 2018 recruiting class, Joseph was just a three-star recruit, despite logging time as a two-way player and a track athlete in Orlando. He fielded offers from schools like USF and Florida Atlantic, as well as Power Five programs like Mississippi State and Syracuse.

Despite impending opportunities at schools with reliable developmental programs at defensive back, Joseph passed up Mississippi State and Syracuse for Illinois, citing the chemistry within the Fighting Illini program.

Joseph’s career at Illinois

You’d obviously rather end on a high note than a low one. But Joseph’s collegiate career was especially uneventful until his final season. The Illinois safety spent his first three years building up experience. Still, he only started two games over that stretch, compiling 59 tackles, 4 pass deflections, and a forced fumble through his junior year.

Joseph came into 2021 with little fanfare. But the arrival of experienced defensive mind Bret Bielema changed things. Joseph exploded onto the scene in the Big Ten, amassing 57 tackles, a sack, 5 interceptions, 2 pass deflections, and 2 fumble recoveries in 12 games. Coming out of virtually nowhere, Joseph became a first-team All-Big Ten honoree and earned All-American honors from various outlets.

Joseph’s NFL Draft ascension

Joseph’s inability to produce early in his career may rub some people the wrong way. But every NFL Draft prospect’s developmental curve is different. Joseph is still just 21 years old, and he won’t turn 22 until November of his rookie season. Even after his career-defining season, Joseph is still just scratching the surface of what he can become.

With his explosiveness, length, and playmaking ability, Joseph projects as a high-upside free safety in the NFL, with effective single-high capabilities. He can still refine his ability in the box a bit, but his ability to stack blockers and navigate congestion, at the very least, alludes to upside there. The offseason has already done wonders for Joseph’s stock, and by the end of the process, he could be a Round 2 selection.

Tony Pauline’s Scouting Report on Kerby Joseph

Positives: Former part-time player who pulled it all together last season. Explosive, tough, and sells out to make plays. Quick to diagnose, fires up the field, and drives his shoulders through ball handlers. Explosive and hard-hitting. Tracks the pass in the air, moves decisively to the throw, and quickly gets to the flanks. Displays solid range in center field.

Negatives: Not a stout safety. Was not a factor for Illinois until last season.

Analysis: Joseph is a fast-rising prospect who turned in a terrific season and then showed well during Senior Bowl practices. He possesses enough ability to be a traditional free safety once he polishes his game and comes with a large upside.

Ian Cummings is a Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and follow him on Twitter: @IC_Draft.

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