Queen / USA TODAY Sports Images

Karl Joseph of WVU would fit right into the Pittsburgh Steelers' legendary line of playmaking strong safeties

SCI.net publisher Jim Wexell says the Steelers should look in their own backyard for their next playmaking safety. Karl Joseph's coordinator at WVU agrees.

Donnie Shell. Carnell Lake. Troy Polamalu.

It's a line of legendary strong safeties. Defensive playmakers, all.

In fact, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven't played in a Super Bowl without one of them, and they've played in eight.

As the 2016 draft nears, and the Steelers look over a deep crop of defensive prospects, they shuffle their deck in the secondary and wonder if they can get by without a talented Pro Bowl strong safety.

Or, if they should draft one early.

According to one reporter, Keanu Neal drew their attention at Florida's pro day this week. Draft analyst Tony Pauline reported that the Steelers have first-round interest in the 6-0 1/2, 211-pound Florida strong safety.

Neal is a hard-hitter in the run game and has the length to cover the biggest tight ends in the NFL. But he might not be a playmaker the likes of one who's in their own backyard, a strong safety who'll unfortunately be on the sideline at the April 4 West Virginia pro day with an injured knee.

But then again, personnel people have so much respect for Karl Joseph that even injured he could be selected in the first round.

And the Steelers need to think long and hard about drafting Joseph 25th.

"I think he'd be great, and I hope he goes there because that's my favorite team in the NFL," said WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. "I grew up a Steelers fan and love watching them play, and I think they could use a guy like him, with everything that he brings and as aggressively as they play with their safeties, the different things that they do. I think he'd be perfect in their scheme."

Joseph is being compared -- by NFL.com analyst and former Steelers camp safety Mike Mayock -- to Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas, who's certainly befitting of the Steelers' great line of playmaking safeties.

"Yeah, I would agree," Gibson said. "I'm a coordinator and moved down to linebackers, but for the first 17, 18 years of my career I was a DB coach, and (Joseph) is as good as any I've ever had, and I've had them drafted in the first round all the way to the seventh round. He's just a kid who works extremely hard, a great leader. Just everything about the kid is superb."

Except that knee.

Joseph tore his right ACL during a non-contact practice drill on Oct. 6, three days after playing against Oklahoma in one of the finest games of his illustrious WVU
career. Joseph sought out renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews and underwent surgery the following week.

At the NFL Combine last month, Joseph said, "I'm about four months out right now. Got a surgery done by Dr. Andrews and he thinks I'm well on schedule so I'll be ready by training camp."

By the calendar, Joseph is five weeks ahead of the schedule established a year earlier by running back Todd Gurley, who tore an ACL on Nov. 15, 2014, was drafted 10th overall by the St. Louis Rams and returned to practice Aug. 25, 2015.

Gurley made his pro debut Sept. 27 against the Steelers with six carries for nine yards, and then rolled through four consecutive games with at least 128 rushing yards. Gurley finished third in the NFL with 1,106 yards rushing.

But that's just the calendar. Gibson raved about Joseph's work ethic in rehab.

"I think he'll be ready to go June, July," Gibson said. "I think he'll be full speed when camp starts, just because of the way the kid works and how bad he wants it. And Dr. Andrews did the surgery. He's been actually doing all his rehab there as well. So he went to the right place and got the right people to do it, and I know he'll rehab and get back. I'm sure he's ahead of schedule right now, compared to probably anyone else who's had the surgery. That's just me guessing that. I don't know that, but I would almost guarantee he would be full speed by July because I know the way he works. He'll do everything in his power to get back to full strength as quick as he can."

Of course, Joseph will miss spring practices, so a team will have to decide whether it can spend a first-round pick on someone who must learn the defense without the introductory course. Gibson doesn't see that being a problem for Joseph.

"In the right situation there's no doubt in my mind he could start and play a bunch (as a rookie)," Gibson said. "And what people will realize about him, whoever gets him, he's going to be a tremendous special teams guy. We didn't use him on special teams a whole lot because he was our guy."

WVU used him enough, though. According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Joseph not only was in on 96 percent of WVU's defensive snaps in his first three seasons, he was in on 363 snaps on special teams.

In 42 starts, beginning with the opener of his freshman year, Joseph made 284 tackles, had 16.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, nine interceptions, 14 pass breakups, eight forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. At the Combine, he measured 5-9 5/8, 205 pounds, or right in the middle of the Thomas (5-10 1/4, 208) and Bob Sanders (5-8 3/8, 204) comparison.

Gibson praised Joseph's durability, physicality, flexibility and skills as a blitzer and in coverage.

Is there a weakness?

"We had conversations," Gibson said of the offseason before Joseph's senior season. "The biggest thing that came out of them was ball skills. 'You play good man coverage. You're good in coverage. Start getting the ball.' He worked his tail off all summer long to get to that point, and in the first game it showed. The kid had three interceptions. He had five in four games."

Joseph intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble in last season's opener against Georgia Southern. Against Maryland a few weeks later, Joseph followed a running back on a deep wheel route out of the backfield and intercepted a pass in the end zone. That was Gibson's favorite.

"We were in man coverage," Gibson said. "He flipped his hips, pinned the kid to the sideline and went up and high-pointed the ball in the end zone. Made a heck of a play."

The next week against Oklahoma, in Joseph's final college game, he made another interception on an underneath route in which he located the pass, spun around and plucked the ball out of the air. That gave him the national lead, but it wasn't his only highlight of the game.

"Ohhhh," Gibson said of the Oklahoma game. "Did you see his play coming out of the middle of the field hitting that wideout on the sideline? And he (also) hits (Samaje) Perine before the half on a seven, eight-yard run. That guy's 240 pounds. Knocked him two or three yards back. So he does it to everybody."

Gibson doesn't have a favorite anecdote about Joseph off the field, because, according to Gibson, Joseph's a "Very serious kid. He wasn't a kid that joked around. It was all about business when he was in the meeting rooms and between those white lines."

That described Joseph at the Combine. When asked if the Steelers had expressed any interest, Joseph's eyes widened and it was obvious that HE was interested but had misheard the question. Joseph didn't want to continue any line of questioning about favorite teams and/or which teams had expressed interest in him. After all, he was at the sports world's greatest job fair.

"I think I can fit any team's style," Joseph said. "Put me in position to make plays and I'll fit there."

"Yes," Gibson said in agreement. "He can play down. He can play on slots. He can play in half field. He can do it all. ... Just a tremendous blitzer, that kind of thing, too. That's why I hope somebody like Pittsburgh gets him because of how they could use him.

"He's a smart kid," Gibson added in conclusion. "He's a student of the game. That's the other thing that I think people will be impressed with, how much time he would take studying film and doing all of that. He's a smart kid. Here's a kid that played his first four years, didn't redshirt, got his degree. Just a guy that does everything the right way. He's going to make us proud, and whoever gets him I'm sure he'll make them proud as well."

(For more informational nuggets in the transcripts of interviews with Tony Gibson and Karl Joseph, click here.)


Steel City Insider Top Stories