GLENDALE, Ariz. — Tony Jefferson was not drafted, yet he appeared in all 16 games for the Arizona Cardinals as a rookie, even starting two of them.
Now entering his second season, Jefferson is trying to hold off first-round pick Deone Bucannon to stay on top of the depth chart.
“And I didn’t get drafted,” he said. “The best players will play, and that’s what I’m trying to be, one of the best players out there.”
Of course, Jefferson was not exactly your standard undrafted free agent. He started 34 games for the Oklahoma Sooners in college, finishing his career with 258 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, seven sacks, eight interceptions and 13 passes defensed.
He led his team with 119 tackles his junior season, following which he declared for the NFL Draft. A hamstring injury suffered at the NFL Combine led to a sub-standard pro day, and no doubt his 40-yard dash time of 4.75 did nothing to help his cause. Even with all that, his NFL.com draft profile said:
“Though shorter than most top safety prospects, Jefferson’s leadership skills, physicality around the line of scrimmage and his coverage skills will entice teams to pick him early in the 2013 draft.”
Yet no one took a flier on the 5-foot-11, 212-pound safety, early or late. Their loss appeared to be the Cardinals’ gain, though Jefferson’s role appeared to take a significant hit when the Cardinals took Bucannon 27th overall in May’s draft.
But through the first week of training camp, it is Jefferson who is running with the first team.
“He’s just got to beat him out,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked what Jefferson needs to do to earn the spot, while noting that all Bucannon can handle right now is the Dollar Linebacker role. “[Jefferson] is doing really well at safety.”
The coach praised Jefferson for his growth as a safety, and while it would be easy to look at the situation and say it’s only a matter of time before Bucannon takes over, Arians is not known to worry about anything more that production when it comes to playing time.
And Jefferson, who finished last season with 16 total tackles with one tackle for loss and two QB hits last season, along with another six tackles on special teams, has already produced some at the NFL level.
“Once you’re out there and you’re making plays, it definitely builds your confidence,” he said. “It gives you the more, I feel like I feel like I fit around here. It’s definitely done wonders for me in that aspect.”
Jefferson said he’s improved in the mental part of the game as well, noting how he has stayed off the mental error sheet thus far in camp. If he continues to play like that, he believes the starting job can be his, regardless of what it took for him to reach this point.
“It doesn’t matter how you got here, it’s what you do when you’re here,” he said.
And in the NFL, training camp is when players fight for jobs yet look to help each other along the way. It’s an interesting dynamic, really, but not one that has affected the relationship between Jefferson and the rookie trying to take his job.
Jefferosn said Bucannon is his boy, adding that the rookie is trying to be perfect and has to be reminded that it’s early in camp and picking everything up takes time.
“He’s a real good dude and I hope the best for him,” he said. “He’s going to help this team out a lot.”
That’s not to say having Bucannon around hasn’t changed the way Jefferson approaches the game. Besides still having a chip on his shoulder from not being drafted, he said the rookie’s presence pushes him to work even harder.
“It’s day in and day out,” he said. “I’ve kind of had a little injury sometime, but I’m not sitting out. I don’t have time to sit out. I can’t afford to.”