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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 2 Brandon Joseph

Can the safety phenom live up to the hype he’s inspired in his sophomore season?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players in 2021. We’ve put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy and created a list that has already caused plenty of disagreement.

The list’s criteria simply consisted of players we believe to be the most important to Northwestern football in 2021. However, we know that is up for interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of one player over his backup. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could also mean players who have underperformed and need to step up.

Only one thing is known: no two lists from our staff members are the same. That’s why for each player, we’ll have at least one member break down their placement for the aforementioned player.

Brandon Joseph

Ben Chasen (3)

Let me start by saying this — I ranked Brandon Joseph as the player third-most important to Northwestern’s success this year, but I believe he is the number one talent on the team.

He’s got all the makings of an elite defensive back. Eye-popping speed? Check. Ridiculous ball-hawking field vision? Check. Physical strength to body up larger receivers? Check. Enough confidence to say “enough with the offensive Heisman-winners, I want mine?” He’s got that too.

He is a complete phenom, and he’s getting the recognition he deserves for an elite redshirt first-year season in which he led the nation with six interceptions in nine games. Preseason All-American lists include his name. NFL Mock Drafts have too. Joseph has generated more preseason hype than any Wildcat in recent memory (if not ever), and absolutely no one can say it’s without reason.

So why third on my list?

Simply put, at the safety position you can be far and away the best player on your team, the best player on the field, the best player in your conference, even the best player in the damn country and still not be the most important player to your team’s success.

Here’s why: if you’re an unmitigated disaster at safety, it hurts your team for sure. Your team’s pass coverage and open field run defense will drop dramatically in strength. But if you’re an unmitigated disaster at quarterback? That right there is a larger problem, because you haven’t just made a facet of your team worse, you’ve basically rendered your entire offensive attack useless. Don’t believe me? See here.

So while I think that B Joe is this team’s best player and, in order for NU to live up to its potential, believe that he must do so as well, he simply can’t be the most important player to the team’s success because there are three other defensive backs who can pick up for him when he falters, whereas Ryan Hilinski (or whomever Fitz decides to trot out at QB for the first drive against Michigan State) will have no such safety net.

Still, even at third, Joseph is plenty important to the Wildcats’ success in 2021, and in more ways than one. Yes, he’s this team’s premier talent and, as such, needs to be as fearsome in attacking the ball and opposing receivers as a cheetah is in pursuit of its prey. But there’s also a different, intangible role he must play as a leader of a unit that has lost its elder statesmen (JR Pace and Greg Newsome II). Much has been made about the establishment and continuation of Northwestern’s reputation as a top tier defensive back factory. In order for that talk to turn into reality, Joseph will have to guide younger, less experienced DBs and rally the group to support one another and not point fingers when the going gets rough.

It’s no easy task for a guy going into only his second college playing year, but Joseph seems up to it. He brought a collected persona and a team first attitude to Big Ten Media Day at Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the Big Ten Championship game where his breathtaking interception propelled him to superstardom, stating that there is more to his performance this year than the accolades he collects as an individual.

“If I win the Thorpe Award and we don’t make it back to this stadium,” he said, “then I didn’t do what I needed to for my team.”

Will Karmin (4)

I agree with 99% of everything Ben said above. Brandon Joseph is a generational talent at Northwestern with all the tools to be an All-American-level safety.

The difference between Ben and I here, however, is that Ben thinks B-Jo is more important to Northwestern’s collective success than Skoronski. While Joseph’s style-of-play is more flashy (he touches the ball when he creates turnovers, obviously) than Skornoski’s which may lead casual fans to thinking Joseph is a better player, one could make a valid argument that Skoronski is better than Joseph. For me, however, this debate has much less to do with which player is better compared to which player’s position has a greater chance of dictating whether Northwestern wins or loses on Saturdays.

If you follow baseball, you should be pretty familiar with the “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR) statistic. A few years ago, Pro Football Focus (PFF) implemented a similar statistic in football to measure how important a player is to the team’s success. According to PFF, the “basic gist is to try to measure how negatively a team would be affected should a certain player be lost, causing the franchise to go to the street to find a replacement.” According to the average of the top 10 players at each position in the NFL from 2019, the top-10 WAR average for a safety is ~ .60 WAR, ranking third positionally, while the OT is worth ~ .30 WAR, ranking seventh positionally in the NFL. As you can see, this statistic contradicts my opinion that safety is a less important position than the left tackle. However, I will refer you to the salary cap implications in the NFL from 2019, which PFF explains that “even if you’re skeptical of PFF’s WAR metric… you can’t reject the very real salary cap implications of drafting certain positions. This aspect of positional drafting is arguably even more important than WAR because hitting on cost-controlled rookies at high-paid positions frees up space to add more talent elsewhere.” Below, you can see the average per year salary of the 10 highest-paid players at each position in the NFL:

I am a big baseball fan and thus a big fan of analytics. So if you want to argue based off of PFF’s WAR system that safety is a more important position than left tackle, I will understand your opinion. However, money talks, and the left tackle’s value from both a salary and WAR perspective is deflated from the fact that LT and RT are grouped together whereas left tackle is undoubtedly a more important position than right tackle by the default of protecting the QB’s blindside.

Here, I will take you through two semi-recent Northwestern football games to try and illustrate my point that Skoronski is more important to Northwestern’s success than Joseph.

Here is a condensed video from the BTN’s YouTube page wherein Wisconsin’s safety, Eric Burrell, blitzes off the edge on Hunter Johnson’s blindside and strips the ball resulting in a Wisconsin defensive touchdown back in 2019.

While this play may not directly be attributed to Rashawn Slater (Northwestern’s LT on the play), the play illustrates a lack of communication between the offensive line and ultimately a lack of execution by Slater as well. Slater moves to the second level — illustrating that his initial responsibility on the play was to block a linebacker. He should have communicated that a safety was showing blitz and thus should have stayed home to pick Burrell up off the edge. While the center generally is responsible for communication along the offensive line, Slater should be yelling what he sees to his fellow lineman. Regardless, this play shows a) the important responsibilities that a LT has on a play-to-play basis and B) what occurs when a LT does not convert on his responsibility — a blindside hit of the QB that can potentially knock him out of the game, in addition to a fumble for a touchdown that puts the game out of reach.

Now, one can easily argue that if a safety muffs his coverage, he will be liable for a deep touchdown. While this is true in many scenarios, a safety is typically the second line of defense — meaning if the cornerbacks get burned, the safety is the last person standing between an opposing receiver and the end zone. The offensive tackle, on the other hand, does not have a line of defense between him and the quarterback most of the time. If the LT whiffs on a play, the QB will not see the edge rusher and hence will in all probability go down.

Go back to the 2013 matchup between Northwestern and California-Berkeley. The first thing that came to your mind about this game is probably Collin Ellis’ two pick-sixes en route to a two touchdown NU victory.

And the second thing?

Well, let me remind fans of former Northwestern cornerback Dwight White (#2).

In Jared Goff’s first career start ever, he picked on White all game long which resulted in Goff throwing for 450 yards, with his two leading receivers, Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, hauling in 11 receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns and 13 receptions for 145 yards respectively. Goff’s mission here was simple — whoever White was covering, Goff was targeting. The video is nine minutes long, but if you want to see White being cooked play-after-play in NU’s opening victory in 2013, see the video below:

Now, you may be asking yourself, who were NU’s starting safeties in the game?

The answer is two of NU’s best safeties ever in Ibraheim Campbell and Traveon Henry.

Neither safety had an answer for White’s woes, and yet, Northwestern still found a way to win the game!

So, while I think Brandon Joseph is quite possibly the best defensive player in both the Big Ten and the country, I am not sure just how important he is to Northwestern’s collective success if AJ Hampton, Cam Mitchell or Rod Heard struggle to stay in front of the opposing wide receivers in 2021.