Each week this offseason, we’ll be focusing on one position and how the Panthers may choose to address their needs; whether they’re in the market for an upgrade at starter or just a reliable backup, every player on the 53-man roster is going to be important in 2018.
This is Cornerback Week.
Every year in the NFL draft, there are a number of small school prospects who manage to get their names called during the three days of the draft, but very few have managed to do this coming from as small a school as Michael Joseph. Dubuque University plays in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in the third tier of college football, and the university itself has an enrollment of under 1600 students. Despite all that, Michael Joseph continues to rise up draft boards, and may be an option for the Panthers should they look to add a developmental corner on the final day of the draft.
Small-Time Prime Time
Deion Sanders was arguably the best NFL corner that has ever played, and in large part, that was because he was simply more athletic than anybody he went up against; the same was true for Joseph at Dubuque, both for good and for bad. Albeit at the level he played at, Joseph showed the ability to easily run stride-for-stride with the receivers he was meant to be covering, such as on the following play:
This is possibly the biggest question he has to answer in the build up to the draft, as on a couple of plays during Senior Bowl practices, he got caught trusting his deep speed in a way that revealed a player who has never faced somebody anywhere near as fast as him. This is a common theme for Joseph; he was so much better than his competition that he was able to get away with, and possibly actively foster, some bad habits.
While it might not have been an ample test for the NFL, on both of the following plays, and throughout most of his college tape, Joseph had little difficulty hanging with opposing receivers.
On the following play, Joseph appears to be playing zone, yet is still comfortable able to run downfield in stride with the receiver without having to break out of his backpedal:
Despite his obvious athletic advantage, what Joseph shows on tape is a feel for the receivers in his zone. On both of the following plays, Joseph shows an awareness of the receivers entering and exiting his zone and passes them off/picks them up accordingly:
Dubuque actually runs a remarkably complex defense for college football, let alone Division III, and Joseph shows a consistent understanding of where he needs to be and who he is meant to be covering. Whether he will still be able to run with NFL receivers the way he ran with those he faced at Dubuque is hard to say at this point, but even if he isn’t the dominant athlete he was in college, this feel for where he needs to be could serve him well at the next level.
What will certainly transfer to the next level are his ball skills, there are very few, if any, cornerbacks in the NFL who can make plays like this:
Even when he isn’t able to come away with interceptions, he appears to deflect passes with ease.
Dropping back in zone especially, he shows the kind of natural hands that very few NFL corners posses.
The downside to all of this is that due to his athletic superiority and propensity for coming up with big plays, he has been able to play in an extremely aggressive manner that is at best a result of slightly bad habit and at worst an ingrained recklessness. Josh Norman might be remembered in Carolina for the two seasons where he was picking off passes all over the field, but it should be noted that for two seasons he rode the bench while he learned to play within the structure of the defense.
The following is a prime example of what Joseph simply won’t be able to get away with at the NFL level unless he is extremely fortunate. He actively comes off his man in order to bait the quarterback into the throw, which he then nearly picks off before being saved from embarrassment by a drop. Deion Sanders used to do this at times, but he is the only player in the modern era who had the makeup speed to attempt this tactic at the NFL level.
If Joseph can learn to play within his athletic limits at the NFL level, and assuming those athletic limits are not too severe, then he has every chance of being a really good corner at the NFL level. His ability to make plays on the ball as well as his feel for route concepts and lateral agility would rival almost anybody in the NFL. If he continues to play with the rash aggressiveness he did in college, he could find himself on the wrong end of several big plays.
Something that some teams might consider, depending on his combine numbers, is a conversion to safety. Here, his ball skills and awareness will be maximized while any athletic limitations would be diminished. An important factor generally, but especially if this conversion goes forward, is his tackling ability. Joseph actually showed good tackling technique on tape, showing not only a willingness to engage ball carriers but the technique to get low and wrap up as on the following plays:
It would be surprising to see the Panthers go after Joseph early on unless they plan to use him as a safety, not something to be completely disregarded; but as with Josh Norman all those years ago, his massive upside will make him hard to ignore as the draft goes on.
NFL Best Case Comparison: Josh Norman
NFL Worst Case Comparison: Zack Sanchez aka “The Double-Move Daredevil”
Summary: “A lot of his stock will depend on how well he tests as the combine, as if he tests well then the sky’s the limit should he learn to color between the lines.”
Grade: A- to C+ depending on testing
It should be noted that there isn’t a huge amount of Dubuque football tape publicly available and so what is written here is based on only what is available, though that should be enough to give an indication of Joseph’s strengths and weaknesses.