Illinois' Kerby Joseph brings 'ball skills' to Lions as third-round draft pick

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions addressed one of their biggest roster needs late in the third round of the NFL Draft on Friday night, selecting Illinois safety Kerby Joseph. 

"I feel like when I got the phone call, my eyes just blew up in my head," Joseph explained. "It was just like, 'This is finally happening. This is what I’ve been dreaming about. This is what I’ve been seeing on TV since I was a kid.' Just now actually going through it and seeing it physically in my hands, seeing the phone call and picking it up and talking, I’m just at a loss for words. All the anxiety and all the stress has left my body and I’m just filled with joy now."

Kerby Joseph

After spending much of his first three seasons as a backup receiver for the Illini, the 6-foot-1 Joseph entered the starting defender in 2021 and immediately proved to be a playmaker. In 12 games, he recorded 57 tackles, five interceptions and recovered three fumbles. 

"The ball skills, I was just born with them," he said. "They’re just a natural talent that I have."

Joseph aligned deep on the majority of his defensive snaps last season. Combined with his range and ball skills, he's a natural fit for Detroit's split-safety coverage scheme, implemented last season under defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. 

Joseph enters a depth chart in Detroit that has little long-term stability beyond Tracy Walker, who signed a new, three-year contract with the Lions this offseason.

Will Harris, a third-round pick in 2019, is entering the final season of his rookie contract, while free-agent addition DeShon Elliott, who started 16 games with the Ravens in 2020 but has otherwise struggled with staying healthy, signed with Detroit on a one-year prove-it deal.

Beyond his defensive contributions, Joseph was a key special-teams contributor during his college career, particularly as a gunner on punts. He played more than 400 overall snaps with those units, logging 16 tackles, including a safety while covering a punt against Nebraska last season.  

"Kerby was another guy that’s got a lot of high upside, still developmental, only been playing the position for about a year, but has been a high-level special teams player," general manager Brad Holmes said. "Good rise and elite ball skills and can turn the football over."

The Lions didn't hide their interest in Joseph throughout the process, meeting with him at the Senior Bowl and scouting combine before hosting him for one of the team's 30 allotted pre-draft visits. 

"I felt like I got a sense of family when I was in that room," Joseph said. "Everybody in there connected with me, and I loved that."

Meet Kerby Joseph

Position: Safety

College: Illinois

Height/weight: 6-foot-1/203 pounds

Round/overall: 3/97

Notable stats: He had a breakout year in 2021, becoming the fifth Illini safety in the last 50 years to earn All-Big Ten first-team honors after recording 57 tackles, seven passes defensed, five interceptions and three fumble recoveries in 12 games.

Analysis: Joseph is a welcome addition to a secondary that's a work in progress and is in need of depth at safety. He figures to at least carve out a role as a backup in the back end while contributing on special teams. With his athleticism, range and length, pushing for playing time as a starter in Year 1 isn't out of the question.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers