NAPA – Karl Joseph left Wednesday's practice in a good mood. The Raiders strong safety was astounded by the thoughtful gesture of a young fan, who researched Joseph's favorite candy and gave it to his favorite player during a meet and greet.
Joseph relayed the backstory behind his fresh bag of Sour Patch Kids, took a pause to eat a few and then smiled to himself.
"Wow," Joseph said. "One of the best gifts, ever."
Joseph has reason to be thankful these days, and it extends well beyond free candy. Last year's first-round pick is fully healthy for the first time since tearing an ACL in college. His scheme knowledge is exponentially higher after a full offseason, and the pressure of living up to his draft status isn't under a microscope.
It's clear a great weight has been lifted. Joseph is having fun each day, playing aggressive and confident with the starting unit. He's thinking less, reacting faster. And he's putting shoulders in people whenever possible. Big hits will come when he faces another color, because his trademark explosiveness is back.
"I'm enjoying it, unlike last year where I was always battling expectations and my knee and all that stuff," Joseph said on NBCSportsCalifornia.com's "Raiders Insider Podcast." "I'm trying to get better every day, but I'm definitely having fun. I feel like I'm back in college again, back in high school playing with my teammates. You've got to love it."
Coaches love what they've seen from Joseph so far. He's been a steady playmaker in practice, someone comfortable playing near the line or deep downfield. That's clear on practice tape, and offers a stark contrast to last year's version, the one waiting for his knee to respond right.
"I saw myself playing a little timid at times," Joseph said. "You could see where I would break or make a tackle, I was favoring one leg a little bit. Sometimes I could see myself limping on film. I could tell my leg wasn't where it needed to be yet strength-wise, and that was a focus this offseason working out in the weight room. I wanted to emphasize my lower body and get my legs stronger again."
Joseph tore his ACL in an Oct. 2015 practice at West Virginia and managed to remain a first-round pick despite the injury. His knee was structurally sound and cleared for action last summer, but regaining true strength and explosiveness in a surgically repaired knee can take more time.
The injury itself was trying. The wait for his joint's return to normal was a real grind. It was a difficult period for Joseph, and only fueled the workout warrior inside to increase gym activity. He's typically the last Raiders to leave after practice, with a full lifting regimen where he keeps his feet right, his body strong and his mind clear.
"They drafted me in the first round, so I felt like I had to prove myself," Joseph said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but I had to understand that my path was going to take some time. … Having one year's experience, now I know what to expect. Heading into the first preseason game, it's not like it was last year when I was worried if my knee was going to be okay. Now I'm just playing football. Everything else is in the back of my mind. It's not even a thought anymore."