Tony Jefferson’s play has been on the money

Sep 19, 2016, 1:31 PM | Updated: Sep 20, 2016, 11:04 am
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin his hit by Arizona Cardinals strong safety Tony Jeffe...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin his hit by Arizona Cardinals strong safety Tony Jefferson (22) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
LISTEN: Tony Jefferson, Cardinals safety

TEMPE, Ariz. — Tony Jefferson wasn’t pouting about his financial predicament after the Cardinals’ 40-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium. He just had a fat lip after one of his team-high nine tackles.

Jefferson didn’t pout about his predicament this spring, either, when the Cardinals tendered him a low, one-year qualifying offer of $1.67 million as a restricted free agent. He just rededicated himself to his craft

“I had the opportunity to go somewhere else but I wasn’t really trying to take off,” he said. “I’m happy to be back here and I’m happy to be a starter on this defense; finally getting the opportunity to be on the field 100 percent of the time. I’ve always wanted that. I felt like I was productive last year with being on the field 70 percent of the time. Now you see what’s happening.”

What’s happening is that Jefferson leads the team and is tied for third in the NFL in solo tackles at 18. He also leads the team and is tied for sixth in the NFL with 21 combined tackles.

Even in a poor Cardinals defensive effort against the Patriots in Week 1, Jefferson was a bright spot, playing all 71 snaps (and 14 more on special teams). He led the Cardinals in solo (nine) and combined (10) tackles against New England, he had two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit that blew up a passing play because he got to Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo so quickly.

On Sunday, he was tied with safety Tyvon Branch in solo tackles and again led the team in combined tackles (11) while playing all 79 defensive snaps (and 17 more on special teams). He had two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and a fumble recovery that the Cardinals turned into a touchdown and a 17-0 lead, earning him one of two game balls coach Bruce Arians handed out.

“He’s never taken anything for granted,” Arians said Monday. “He shows up every day and gives you everything he’s got. Very physical, very smart player.

“He came back in fantastic condition and he’s got a good grasp of what we’re doing. He’s kind of taken the leadership role back there and that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Make no mistake; Jefferson knows exactly where he stands, financially, in relation to his teammates and the rest of the NFL. He is tied with reserve receiver Jaron Brown and reserve safety D.J. Swearinger for the 20th highest cap hit on the team. Some of that is due to the market for various positions and Jefferson’s RFA status last spring, but when a reporter asked him Sunday why it seemed he has been everywhere on the field the last two weeks, Jefferson’s response was priceless.

“It has slowed down a lot for me, I feel a lot better and it’s a contract year,” he said, lowering his voice for the final five words.

In some respects, Jefferson’s financial situation parallels his entire pro experience. He wasn’t drafted after an excellent career at Oklahoma. He signed as rookie free agent with the Cardinals in 2013 and has not missed a game.

“I don’t know what happened out of college, but I’ve always been undervalued and passed up,” he said. “I’ve got a big chip on my shoulder. I’ve got to make them pay, so they can pay me.”

Jefferson took a tunnel-vision approach to his summer training. He cut out most social media participation, opting only to post photos on Instagram. He used boxing in his training regimen and he instituted two-a-day workouts on his own.

“I just had a long talk with my family and with myself and I just went after it,” he said. “I lost 10 pounds, and I’ve lost 7 percent body fat since OTAs; now I’m at 7 percent. I was a little chubby.

“I just focused on football and family and just got it rolling from there.”

Jefferson is also relishing his role as a starter who never comes off the field.

“It takes a lot of studying, but it’s given me the opportunity to make plays and I’m doing it,” he said.

His teammates have noticed. As Jefferson was talking Sunday after the game, cornerback Patrick Peterson was nodding his approval, and when safety Tyrann Mathieu was asked what he’s seen of Jefferson so far this season, he shook his head and smiled.

“He’s been great, but that’s nothing new,” Mathieu said. “He played well last year, too — even going back to our first couple years with him coming in in an alternate role. Tony has always been a ball player.

“I don’t know how he didn’t get drafted and I don’t know how he didn’t get paid this offseason, but like I told him, he’s going to have 100 tackles this season, he’s going to catch three interceptions and maybe next offseason he’ll finally get paid.”

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Tony Jefferson’s play has been on the money