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A move to safety could be a career saver or the last hurrah for Cowboys corner Kelvin Joseph

Outside cornerback just isn’t working out for the Cowboys former second-round pick.

Houston Texans v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys really wanted a cornerback in the 2021 NFL Draft. When they missed out on both Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn in round one, they decided to roll the dice on the risk/reward corner from Kentucky, Kelvin Joseph. From an athletic standpoint, Joseph was an exciting option. He had 4.34 speed and was twitched up to handle shifty receivers. He also brought swagger and playmaking ability to the position so one could reason why he was selected so early.

The downside, however, was that Joseph had limited college experience. He fell out of favor during his lone year at LSU and was suspended for their bowl game. He then missed the entire 2019 season as he sat out in the transfer portal before joining Kentucky in 2020. Ultimately, he entered the NFL with just 20 college games under his belt, so it was expected that he could endure some growing pains early in his career.

Fast forward two years and Joseph’s progress is not where we hoped it would be. He’s only had six games where he’s logged greater than 20 defensive snaps and all those instances came either in blowout wins where the coaches could experiment, or where they had a legitimate need after Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis both went down. Even with the team having an urgent need for his services, he still got himself benched after showing himself too much of a liability during the Cowboys' 40-34 overtime loss to Jacksonville last year. Joseph only logged two more defensive snaps over the team’s final five games last year.

With things not going according to plan, the Cowboys have had to make other arrangements at cornerback. Fortunately, they appeared to hit on last year’s fifth-round pick from Fresno State, DaRon Bland. The rookie played in all 17 games last year and has already outperformed both the Cowboys' Day 2 cornerbacks (Joseph and Nahshon Wright) selections from 2021 despite playing one less season.

The Cowboys also traded to acquire the services of veteran corner Stephon Gilmore for at least the 2023 season. The starting cornerback group now consists of Diggs, Gilmore, and Bland.

With the starters already figured out, the Cowboys just need to figure out their depth. Will Joseph continue to be a part of that? He’s only halfway through his rookie deal, so there is still plenty of time for the team to get some type of value from this pick. Recently, it has been reported that the team is experimenting with Joseph playing in the slot and working at safety. Could a position switch be in his future?

The news of him working in this role is interesting as some fans again start to generate some excitement about what he has to offer. He was a four-star safety recruit coming out of high school, and he does have great speed and twitchiness to cover a lot of ground in the middle of the field. Additionally, he doesn’t have the size and physicality to press well and utilize the boundary to his advantage, so we can understand why the Cowboys might want to move him away from the outside.

However, there are also some reasons why this might not be a good idea. When you look at his tape from last year, there aren’t a lot of things we saw that would justify moving him to safety. Here are my notes from the 2022 season.

  • Happy feet, twitchy, good job mirroring
  • Isn’t physical off the snap and doesn’t jam receivers well
  • Hand checks throughout the route
  • Struggles with communication and isn’t where he’s supposed to be a lot of times
  • Has the athleticism to change direction, but his mental processing lags and he’s always a step behind
  • Terrible tackler, just lazy effort at times
  • A lot of good reps where he’s right there smothering the WR, but one mental lapse and he’s toast, he’s a big play waiting to happen

Breaking down his strengths and weaknesses, it’s hard seeing that a move inside would make a lot of sense. Playing in the slot requires more mental processing as he would be closer to the line of scrimmage and would need to be quick to react to running plays. He would also need to be a good open-field tackler, which he’s not. Playing back at safety would afford him a little extra time to process, but it also means he needs to possess high-level communication and good recovery ability, which again, aren’t his strengths.

We might remember that the Cowboys tinkered with where to play Anthony Brown during his third season after he struggled on the outside during his sophomore year in the league. They moved him to slot and it turned out to be a brilliant move as Brown finished the year with a tight window target percentage of 34.5%, good for fourth-best in the league, one spot ahead of Jalen Ramsey. Such a move hid his weaknesses like his grabbiness at the top of routes, and exploited his strengths such as closing speed and active pass-breakup ability. This allowed them to capitalize on his athleticism. Joseph has those same strengths and weaknesses.

The Cowboys ultimately moved Brown back to the outside out of necessity and it's been a rollercoaster ride since, but we shouldn’t forget that he was a good slot corner when he was packaged with Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie.

Of course, just because Brown had success in the slot doesn’t mean Joseph will. To Brown’s credit, he had good field awareness and is a more intelligent processor than Joseph. While it’s worth a shot to see what Joseph can do as the nickel corner, we shouldn’t hold our breath that this experiment will produce favorable results.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Cowboys have an abundance of slot-capable corners in Bland, Lewis, and even Israel Mukuamu. They also have strong talent at safety in Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Donovan Wilson where all three of those guys are typically on the field quite a bit. To think that Joseph will play well enough in the slot to displace those other defensive backs for some reps seems a bit optimistic. In the end, this could just be the coaching staff's way of giving him one last shot to see if he can provide value to this Cowboys defense.

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