Kerby Joseph doesn't think he's arrived, not yet. And he's not setting targets, because who is he to tell himself where he can or can't go? The only aim for Joseph in his second season with the Lions is to better than he was in his first: "If I went hard last year," he said, "I gotta go even harder this year."
Joseph's rookie season was a revelation for the Lions. They didn't plan to call on the third-round pick until safety Tracy Walker went down for the season in Week 3. Joseph strutted onto the field in Week 4 without a single defensive snap under his belt and walked off Lambeau Field in Week 18 with his third pick of Aaron Rodgers under his arm. Now what?
"I don’t like setting goals in this situation because I feel like it’s a limit on my capabilities, because I don’t even know my full potential yet," Joseph said Wednesday after spending a half-hour or so signing autographs for fans at training camp. "So I wont say I'ma get four picks, five picks. I just say I’ma catch ‘em all."
Recruited as a two-way player out of high school, it was just two years ago that Joseph became a full-time safety at Illinois. He finished second in the country that season with five interceptions, then grabbed four more in his first act in the NFL. He's still raw at the position, but his ball skills are clear. Even Rodgers had to admit after Joseph swooped in out of nowhere to pick a potential touchdown last season, "Kid made a nice down the middle."
So Joseph's point is that he'll never stop reaching for more. Had he set his NFL sights on becoming the first defensive back ever to grab three career picks off Rodgers, he'd have nothing left to achieve. If you must ascribe a statement to Joseph's rookie season, it's that you haven't heard from him yet.
"Kerb’s one of those young guys, I’ll be honest with you, he’s gonna be one of the next best safeties in the league," said C.J. Gardner-Johnson, already in that class himself. "You gotta think about it. The tier of safeties that already went and got paid, he’s the next up. That young guy right there, true baller."
Joseph was fired up when the Lions signed Gardner-Johnson this offseason. Beyond the fact that he led the NFL in picks last season, Gardner-Johnson is a fellow product of the Orlando area and fellow pupil of Aaron Glenn, "so we go hand in hand," Joseph said. They've looked natural playing side by side in Detroit's secondary, which got a boost last season from Joseph's ball skills and then added playmakers galore this offseason.
Gardner-Johnson, 25, is quickly emerging as a leader on the Lions defense. And the 22-year-old Joseph is happy to have him as a mentor: "He's a vet, and he's been places I wanna go." Their voices are constants at practice, a soundtrack the offense didn't request. When Joseph closed quickly to deny a deep crosser from Jared Goff to Amon-Ra St. Brown on Wednesday, Gardner-Johnson arrived from the other direction to offer his approval. What followed was a handshake the Lions hope to see frequently this season.
"We have an excess amount of DB's who can make those plays," Joseph said.
A year after allowing the most yards per completion in the NFL, the Lions have a secondary they can count on. Gardner-Johnson was the headliner of a free agent class that also featured corners Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, who should be starters on the outside. Brian Branch, who looks like Gardner-Johnson in training, could be one of the steals of the draft. Including a hungry Joseph, a healthy Walker and the ever competitive Jerry Jacobs, the talent in the back of Detroit's defense has risen rapidly.
"The confidence and communication and trust, that’s the difference I feel like in this room now," said Joseph. "Not saying we didn’t have that last year, but we just got way more this year."
Which makes you wonder what this team might be able to accomplish.
"I don’t wanna speak for the team, but I know that, one, we gotta be the best," Joseph said. "And to be the best, we gotta beat the best."
They'll get their first shot in the season-opener, against the defending Super Bowl champs. In last year's season-finale, Joseph bid Rodgers a Green Bay farewell. Don't put anything past him in his greeting of Patrick Mahomes. Joseph isn't chasing goals, but he's always channeling greatness.
"Every day," he said. "I’m constantly thinking about it, envisioning it. Speaking it into existence, what I can do, because I know I can do it."