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Spagnola: Hey Joseph, Who's Next To Step Right Up


FRISCO, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys have been living a charmed existence this year.

When it comes to surviving injuries with this "next man up" mentality they have written the script.

Right? Think about it.

When Tyron Smith went down just before the season opener, raw rookie and first-round draft choice Tyler Smith moved from left guard in training camp to the starting left tackle. After 12 games, you'd have to say the 24th pick in the draft has been way better than anticipated.

Dak Prescott goes down in the season opener, needing thumb surgery. Veteran backup Cooper Rush steps up to start the next five games. The Cowboys win four of them, losing only to the now 11-1 Philadelphia Eagles, best record in the NFL, and Coop had the Cowboys within striking distance in the fourth quarter, trailing just 20-17 in an eventual 26-17 loss.

Michael Gallup is not ready to start the season, still recovering from his reconstructive knee surgery. James Washington fractures his fifth metatarsal at the start of training camp. He might return. But Noah Brown, basically a special teams player his previous five seasons with the Cowboys, no more than a bit player at wide receiver, steps right up, has a career high 30 catches for 399 yards, both career highs after 12 games, in fact, just nine catches shy of his five-year total of 39 and 26 yards shy of his five-year receiving total of 425. Caught his first touchdown pass of his career, too, plus a career long 45-yarder.

When the Cowboys moved Tyler Smith to left tackle, they now needed a left guard. Your turn Connor McGovern. In his previous three NFL seasons, playing in only two of them, he had totaled 14 starts, just six of those last year. Well, he steps right up to help solidify an offensive line playing mighty well 12 games into a season, having started 10 of them.

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What about Dorance Armstrong? Another backup guy his first four seasons in the NFL. But with Randy Gregory moving on to Denver in free agency, Armstrong has stepped right up, taking advantage of his opportunity to start at right defensive end, already having played 400 snaps, and with five games to go likely to exceed last year's career high of 507 snaps. And what do you know, the guy is second on the team with a career-high eight sacks.

Then there is slot corner Jourdan Lewis. Fractures his Lisfranc in the Detroit game. Up steps raw rookie DaRon Bland, no more than a fifth-round pick to man the slot, a position he had never really played in college. Always an outside corner. Well, in the past five games, you'd be hard pressed to remember he was a backup, already stepping up with three picks, tied with Trevon Diggs for the team lead.

Oh, and let's not forget Anthony Barr going down with a hamstring strain with two minutes to go in the first half of the Chicago game. Suddenly another of the Cowboys fifth round pick, Damone Clark, a future type draft choice since he had vertebrae fusion surgery in March right after the NFL Combine, steps up from special teams duty to man a linebacker position in his first game since his last one at LSU. All he has done in five games playing alongside Leighton Vander Esch is start two of those, total 20 tackles. Why Clark steps up to play 171 snaps, already having logged 20 tackles and forcing two fumbles, six tackles in that surprise appearance against the Bears and then a career-high seven two games ago against the Giants.

And now . . . now . . . that brings us to Sunday, noon, AT&T Stadium against the Houston Texans. Staring left corner Anthony Brown is out for the season, having ruptured his Achilles this past Sunday against the Colts. Already Brown's had surgery, facing a long recovery, a bad injury for a cornerback.

So who's next?

Step right up to bat Kelvin Joseph predominantly a special teams player these first two seasons in the NFL, last year's second round draft choice slated to start his third career game, the first two at the end of his rookie season. Has played just 87 defensive snaps this year and but 164 last season, with 131 of those in two late season starts.

Well, there is this old TV show that debuted in the 1950s, This Is Your Life. Fittingly for Joseph, this is his grand NFL opportunity these final five games of the 2022 season, with the high possibility of playoffs on the horizon. His performance the rest of the way could dictate just where this career path is headed.

"This is a huge opportunity for him, we're counting on him to step up," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy says.

The Cowboys have little other choice since Bland already is manning the slot and last year's third-round pick Nahshon Wright has been no more than a special teams player and has yet to play a defensive snap this season. C.J. Goodwin, considered just a special teams ace, is the only other cornerback on the 53-man roster as of today.

Plus, Joseph has little college experience, to boot. He played just 15 games in college, first at LSU and then sat out a season before playing one year at Kentucky. Unfortunately, Joseph, while one of the Cowboys best special teams players – he is the leader on special teams coach John Fassel's point system board – soiled his reputation when he was a passenger in a car involved in a drive-by shooting that killed one man back in April. Joseph was only charged with being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He's lucky.

Also, lucky the Cowboys stuck with him since there had been in-house talk of cutting ties. Now Joseph must prove he's worth that second-round pick, and really the second chance the Cowboys have given him, needing to prove he has grown up and putting his priorities in order. The 23-year-old has all the talent in the world. Ran a 4.35-second 40 at his Pro Day last year.

When asked if Joseph was sneaky fast, Goodwin, his fellow gunner on the special teams on punt coverage, said, "I thought it was in-your-face speed. He's fast.

"His athletic ability, oh man, he has all the athletic ability to be a great player. When he locks in, when he accepts his role, whatever it is, he is going to be a player."

More of the same scouting report from fellow special teamer Luke Gifford, who is right behind Joseph on the point board.

"He's a freak athlete," the fourth-year player says. "I think the most impressive thing about him is his speed, his contact balance, going down there, running full speed and then still making the tackle in space. That's pretty impressive. There's not a lot of guys who can do that.

"If you're a good player on special teams, it usually translates. I think a lot of his skills do."

Well, the Cowboys are about to find out. Teams already don't like throwing regularly to the other side, where Trevon Diggs mans, having picked off 11 passes last year, most since Everson Walls did so in 1981 as a rookie, and currently is third in the NFL with 13 PBUs this year, two off the lead, and with three picks. Of late, Diggs has been following the opponent's top receiver.

Then there is Bland in the slot. And as previously pointed out, other than Wright, the only other two corners on the team are practice squaders, Kendall Sheffield and recently signed Mackenzie Alexander, both with NFL experience.

You can bet the Texans, though offensively challenged this year, ranked 32nd in in total yards, averaging just 15.7 points a game and having switched QBs back to Davis Mills, will have a bullseye on Joseph. Yep, just as the Colts had when Brown went down in the third quarter of last Sunday's game, immediately lighting up Joseph on a second-and-13 at the Cowboys 15 for a touchdown, though later coming back late in the fourth quarter to break up a pass.

"He's going to get tested, just like he did last week," McCarthy said, knowing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn at times will give him some safety help over the top. "We're conscious of it. He's a young player with a lot of growth in front of him.

"This is a big moment for him."

Well, it's time for a growth spurt. It's time for Joseph to understand it's time to become better known as an NFL corner than as he fancies himself a rapper, in that life known as "Bossman Fat."

And of all the guys who have previously stepped up this season for the Cowboys, this one is critical. This is the corner. Joseph will be out on an island at times. There is no hiding. Hard to disguise any deficiencies out there.

"He's got his opportunity," Gifford says of Joseph. "There is nothing like game reps though. It's just like special teams, the more opportunities he's gotten in that role, he's just exploded it."

And as Goodwin predicts after watching Joseph somewhat master his special teams roles after not having played hardly any special teams in college, "Imagine if he goes in there and locks in at corner, he's going to be nice, going to be nice."

The Cowboys need some "nice" from yet another backup stepping up.

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