ALAMEDA — Like everyone else, Karl Joseph was hoping to make a sudden impact in the NFL.
Joseph, a first-round draft pick out of West Virginia in 2016, arrived with the reputation as a 5-foot-10, 205-pound enforcer. Compared to former Colts safety Bob Sanders, Joseph’s fearlessness and willingness to sacrifice his body for a quick strike was his calling card.
Still is, as it turns out.
“Nothing’s changed,” Joseph said Wednesday as the Raiders began preparations in earnest to visit the Baltimore Ravens. “That’s how I’ve always played, from little leagues through high school and college.”
The Raiders have played better defense in their last two games against the Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals, and it’s no coincidence that the improvement arrived at about the same time Joseph began looking the part of a first-round draft pick.
“Karl brings an attitude with the physicality and speed that he plays with,” cornerback Daryl Worley said. “He’s really that `X’ factor we have back there.”
Nothing’s come easy for Joseph, who played in five games as a senior at West Virginia after a torn ACL, then needed the better part of his rookie season with the Raiders to get full confidence in his leg. He played in 15 games last season and was slowed by minor injuries.
Under coach Jon Gruden and new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, Joseph got off to a slow start and played only 10 snaps in the first two games against the Rams and Broncos. In Week 3, the Raiders had a bigger role for Joseph, and he promptly pulled a hamstring on his first defensive snap chasing Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill out of bounds.
Three weeks of rehab and inactivity followed, and as the Raiders slumped, Joseph’s name came up along with Amari Cooper and Bruce Irvin in trade rumors.
When Joseph got back on the field, he immediately got 31 snaps against Indianapolis, with speculation that he was being showcased so the Raiders could pick up a late-round draft pick for a player two years removed from being a first-round selection.
There were no takers, and based on the last two games, that could be a good thing for the Raiders. Joseph has been on the field for 80 of 110 snaps, has had five tackles each game and on at least three occasions has had a bone-jarring tackle.
Joseph also had an interception off a deflection against the Cardinals which set up a touchdown in a 23-21 win.
“I’m on the field, getting my opportunity,” Joseph said. “I’m healthy right now, just playing fast. I’m understanding my role and my responsibilities, just going out to play football. I tell myself every game, I’ve been doing this my whole life so it’s nothing new.”
Joseph is only 25, but approaches his livelihood with serenity and a religious faith he believes has helped him navigate the rough spots.
“I can only control what I can control, so I try to stay positive about everything and keep working, improving,” Joseph said. “I knew eventually I’d get my chance and I’d just have to take advantage of it.”
Any criticism regarding Joseph’s performance has been mild compared to what is self-inflicted.
“I focus more on the plays I missed, missed tackles, or a missed opportunity on the ball,” Joseph said. “I know sometimes I can be too negative about stuff like that and can focus too much on the negative stuff. But I think that’s just part of me wanting to be great, so I’m always looking at the stuff I do wrong.”
Veteran defensive lineman Frostee Rucker has watched Joseph closely since arriving this season. He’d heard all about the first-round pick with the reputation for physical play. Instead, what he saw was Joseph first on the bench, and then injured.
“Karl doesn’t back away from anything,” Rucker said. “The beginning of the year wasn’t going in his favor. When you’re a professional, it’s hard when you know you can help and don’t get a chance. But he’s showed up big the last two weeks.”
Big enough so that it’s conceivable that Joseph, instead of being shipped out as part of a continuing roster makeover, could end up in the Raiders’ plans going forward.
“I’ve told numerous people I want to be here,” Joseph said. “I’m going to make the best of it and take advantage of every opportunity I get and help the team win. I can’t control what happens in terms of trade deadlines and the off-season. You never know in this business. But when you get drafted somewhere, it’s special to you. This is where I want to be.”