Joey Porter Jr. is blazing his own path to the 2023 NFL draft
The person on the other end of the line paused as he answered the phone.
“This is Joey Porter,” he said, adding after a beat, “Senior.”
Once the only Joey Porter in the NFL world, Porter Sr. now is watching his son, Joey Porter Jr., make the name his own as a potential first-round pick in the NFL draft later this month.
“It’s fun,” Porter Jr. said with a laugh about sharing his name. “I got used to it.”
To avoid confusion at home, Porter Jr. goes by JJ to friends and family.
But on the field, there’s no mistaking Porter Jr. for his dad. Both are tall at nearly 6-foot-3, but as an NFL outside linebacker for 13 seasons, Porter Sr. played at a solid 248 pounds, while his son is a rangy cornerback weighing 193 pounds with a broad 81-inch wingspan that makes him one of the top prospects in this year’s class.
As a press cornerback, he ranks No. 17 overall on Mel Kiper’s Big Board and comes in at No. 3 in Matt Miller’s ranking of the cornerback class.
Porter Jr. joins Paris Johnson Jr. — whose dad was an Arizona Cardinals fifth-round pick in 1999 — as one of the two prospects in this year’s draft with first-round projections whose father played in the NFL, representing the growing number of second-generation players in the league.
In 2021, 3.4% of NFL players were second-generation players, an increase from 1.8% in 2001 and 1.0% in 1981.
For Porter Jr. and the other legacy players, joining the family business is a double-edged sword, because for as many advantages that come with growing up around the game, there’s also the inevitable pressure of living up to a name dripping with preconceived expectations.
“It’s hard because your dad’s made so many big plays. He’s done so many big things in this league already, and the football world is so small,” said recently signed Cincinnati Bengals left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., son of nine-year NFL veteran Orlando Brown Sr. “… I see other guys — juniors or seconds — doing it, I’m just like, ‘Man, hats off to you because it’s not easy growing up, having to dive in and play football.”
Still, the pressure isn’t stopping Porter Jr. from taking over his father’s game and molding his own narrative as he prepares for the draft.
“People are always gonna make comparisons,” Porter Jr. said. “I have my name, and he has his name.
“I just do what I love to do, and that’s play football.”
IT’S RARE FOR Porter Sr. to talk publicly about his son.
Since Porter Jr. arrived at Penn State as a four-star prospect in 2019, Porter Sr. has done only a handful of interviews, and it’s not for lack of being asked.
“I don’t (do interviews) because it’s his journey and his time,” Porter Sr. said. “I don’t ever wanna make the situation about me because it’s not, it’s about him.”
Porter Sr. doesn’t want his All-Pro career casting a long shadow over his oldest son’s accomplishments.
Porter Sr. is busy as his son prepares for the draft, in the midst of his first season as the linebackers coach of the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas. That means he’s been pretty hands off with Porter Jr.’s pre-draft process, but that’s not unlike the approach he’s taken throughout his son’s football career as Porter Sr. encourages his namesake to forge his own path.
“Sometimes I get to talk to him before (the visit), sometimes I don’t,” Porter Sr. said. “It’s not really anything I have to prepare him for in that situation, because at this point in time all you have to do is just go in there and be you, be a good person. Let them see that.”
Porter Sr. isn’t worried about his son because he’s been preparing him for these moments his whole life. There’s no need to cram for the test when every day was a study in how to be a professional.
Born a year after Porter Sr. was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 1999 draft, Porter Jr. grew up in locker rooms and on sidelines. When Porter Jr. was 7, his dad signed a five-year deal with the Dolphins and spent three seasons in Miami, followed by a two-year stint with the Arizona Cardinals before he retired. Then, he returned to the Steelers for five seasons as a general defensive assistant and linebackers coach.
“I feel like it’s a big advantage,” Porter Jr. said. “Not too many people have people in their family that have done it before. So the fact that he has, and he’ll be in my corner and has saved me from bumping my head on certain instances. It’s big to me and I definitely use him a lot.”
WHILE HIS DAD chased a coaching career, Porter Jr. became friends with Mason and Dino Tomlin, sons of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, and played basketball with the pair at the Boys & Girls Club. He also earned a spot as one of the Steelers’ ball boys, giving him more glimpses at life as a professional football player, including testing his abilities against some of the members of the team.
“I remember as a young kid, I did one-on-ones with (Antonio Brown) so that was a nice treat,” Porter Jr. said at the NFL combine. “I know he wasn’t going 100%, but just to be able to line up against him was something special.”
All of those experiences give Porter Jr. and other second-generation hopefuls a set of intangibles, both inherited and learned, that NFL coaches and general managers look for in talent evaluation.
“It’s really simple: Professional football is less of a mystery for them,” coach Tomlin said. “It’s less of a dream for them when someone in your close proximity is living that out, be it a older sibling or a parent.
“You see it, you know what it’s about, you understand it. There’s less dreaming about it and more planning and taking action to create that end result. And I just think that that creates a higher potential floor and makes the acquisition less mystical.”
The Baltimore Ravens leaned on that familiarity in 2018 when they selected Orlando Brown Jr. in the third round.
As a third grader watching the Ravens play the Buffalo Bills, Brown Jr. realized he wanted to be just like his dad, who played in the NFL until 2005 and spent six seasons as the Ravens’ starting right tackle before he died of diabetic ketoacidosis in 2011.
“That was the first time that I ever really sat down and watched a full game and really watched the right tackle and the left tackle,” he said. “I really watched him. … It just all kind of clicked for me that day. And I just remember thinking to myself, ‘This is what I really want to do.'”
Former general manager Ozzie Newsome, who was part of the Cleveland Browns front office that drafted Brown Sr. and the Ravens’ front office that signed him as a free agent, drafted Brown Jr., fulfilling a childhood dream — and a not-so-accidental prophecy.
“Eventually being able to have that opportunity to be the starting left tackle for the Ravens, that was so special to me and my family,” said Brown Jr., who played with the Ravens from 2018-2020.
PORTER JR. SEES the instant flash of recognition across a person’s face when he introduces himself. A carbon copy of dad’s broad smile hints at the familial connection, but his name instantly reveals it.
Sharing a last name and a bloodline with an NFL great, though, doesn’t mean the second-generation’s path is an express lane to the pros. An NFL dad isn’t a cheat code, and it doesn’t allow their sons to skip the hours of practice, film study and weight training.
“They did it on their own,” Charlotte Heyward said, who has two sons (Cameron and Connor) playing for the Steelers. She was also married to the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, an 11-year NFL veteran. “They didn’t do it on the back of someone’s name. (Porter Jr.) didn’t just go to Penn State, and now he’s gonna get drafted. He had to do the work and take it seriously because the NFL is a very hard club to get into.”
While Porter Sr. wants his son to stand on his own in the football world, it’s hard for NFL teams to talk to the younger Porter without mentioning his dad.
“He’s brought up probably every meeting I’ve been in,” Porter Jr. said with a wide grin at the combine. “Just, ‘How’d you grow up with him? How was it? Was he in your corner?’ Simple stuff I was just asked today. He’s brought up a lot. No big deal.”
It’s a phenomenon former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck understands all too well.
Growing up 45 minutes outside Boston as the son of former New England Patriots tight end Don Hasselbeck wasn’t easy. Even though his dad didn’t pressure his three sons to play football, the community around them expected big things out of the Hasselbeck offspring.
“When I was in high school, everyone used to make fun of me because every time I did something like in a game, I’d get in the Boston Globe or the Boston Herald and they would say, ‘Matt, son of former Patriot Don Hasselbeck,'” Hasselbeck said with a laugh. “And like all my friends would joke like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know your middle name was ‘Son of former Patriot Don.'”
Now, the father of three is on the other side as his son Henry, also a quarterback, enters his senior year at the same high school his dad attended. But Hasselbeck said his son, who’s racking up football offers despite being committed to play lacrosse at Maryland, isn’t fazed by the family-targeted trash talk.
“He’s heard all the lines, whether it’s Instagram or Twitter or whatever,” Hasselbeck said. “I’m sure a lot of kids in his situation probably feel the same way. They’re just like, whatever. Maybe this next generation has a mental toughness that we never had.”
AFTER FINISHING THE 2021 season at Penn State with 51 tackles, one forced fumble and an interception en route to a third-team All-Big Ten nod, Porter Jr. felt ready to start his professional career.
His parents disagreed.
“I wanted to leave last year, but it was hard,” Porter Jr. said at the combine. “I had a hard conversation with my parents, and they told me I wasn’t ready. I took that and listened to them because my dad’s been there before.
“It definitely hurt. Definitely didn’t want to hear that from my parents, but I knew it was from good intentions. And they were right because if I didn’t, I don’t think I’d be in this position right now.”
Porter Jr. earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his final season at Penn State. He had a career-high 11 pass breakups and his 3.7 opponents’ yards per attempt thrown in his direction was tied for fourth best in the FBS.
Now with an extra year of experience under his belt after returning for his redshirt junior season, Porter Jr. feels more than ready to take on the same challenges his dad prepared him for heading into the draft.
“If the kid isn’t wired right, living up to their parents’ expectations can be hard,” one NFL scout told ESPN. “But if they made it this far, they are fine. Generally, the ones that can’t handle it don’t make it to or past college.”
Porter Jr. has more than handled expectations. He’s navigated a journey of immeasurable pressure, and he might’ve gotten help from his dad to get here, but he’s undeniably his own individual.
“What you see out there, how he plays, that’s him. That’s JJ. That’s Joey Jr.,” Porter Sr. said. “He’s gonna make the name his, he’s going to add legacy to the name with the things that he can do and the things that he’s going to do. It’s really his turn, and I’m just sitting back watching.”