Tony Jefferson had the best season of his career in 2016, tallying 92 tackles to go along with two sacks, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
His timing could not have been much better.
Jefferson was playing under a one-year contract signed last offseason, when he was a restricted free agent.
Now, he is an unrestricted free agent, and at 24 years old seems to be in line for a nice pay day.
“It’s cool, it’s definitely cool,” Jefferson told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Friday. “But, personally, with that chip on my shoulder, I feel like I’ve earned it. It’s been a while — it’s been a long time coming for this, to get this type of attention — but, you know, money is always good, obviously, for your family and stuff, but I don’t play the sport for that.
“I love playing football, I love the game. So I’m more focused on that aspect than the money part. Obviously money’s tight, but I don’t really play for that.”
Jefferson has long felt unappreciated — if not by the Cardinals than by the rest of the NFL — after he entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Oklahoma in 2013. He played in all 16 games as a rookie, starting two, but made most of his contribution on special teams.
His role increased the following season, however, as he started nine games and received more action at safety, and in 2015 he started seven games. This past season he started 14 of 15 games played, with the one non-start coming after he sprained his MCL on special teams early in Arizona’s Week 16 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
Up to that point, however, Jefferson had been one of the Cardinals’ best defenders.
“Disruptive; a guy that made a bunch of plays for us. One of the most consistent guys that we had defensively,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher said of Jefferson. “Week in and week out, you could count on Tony. He was going to make plays that are going to change the game. He’s going to cover tight ends, and I thought he did a really great job when we put him in one-on-ones with tight ends this year.
“I think he had a really, really good year. I was disappointed for him from a Pro Bowl standpoint that he didn’t get voted. I thought this is a guy that is one of the top players at his position in this league.”
Going forward, the question surrounding Jefferson is regarding whether or not he will continue with the Cardinals. Jefferson said the two sides have been talking.
“Obviously I want to be here, they want me back, so we’ll try to do what we can do,” he said. “The worst part about the great NFL is the business side, so you’ve got to let that stuff play out how it goes.
“But I think the interest between each of us is obviously mutual — this is pretty much my home.”
Last offseason saw the Cardinals part ways with a couple members of their secondary, with cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Rashad Johnson moving on to new teams. The idea that more, like Jefferson, could depart this offseason is a tough idea for some to stomach.
“There’s a lot of great guys with a lot of talent,” dollar linebacker Deone Bucannon said, not necessarily referring to Jefferson specifically. “We have great camaraderie and we’re all tight-knit and I would just love for everybody to stay.”
As Jefferson said, though, while there is interest on both sides to keep him in Arizona, the NFL is a business and nothing is guaranteed.
Right now, Jefferson said, his focus is on rehabilitation, not wanting to explore free agency for a little just to see what his market value may be.
The way he sees it, if he re-signs without ever really exploring the free agent market, it’s on the team to make it happen.
“That goes both ways,” he said. “At the same time, I’m just ready to work out again, to be honest. I just want all that stuff to unfold on its own.
“I can’t control much of that; I think my tape and myself and how I’m viewed to Arizona and whoever, I think that’s going to speak for itself.”
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