Is Tony Jefferson the Answer for the Arizona Cardinals at Strong Safety?

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterApril 10, 2014

Nov 24, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson (22) and cornerback Javier Arenas (35) against the Indianapolis Colts at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When former Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson went undrafted in 2013, draft analysts wept. Most were puzzled as to why he went undrafted. Was there an off-the-field incident we didn’t know about, or was it his size? Unfortunately, the million-dollar question was never answered. 

However, the good news is Jefferson did OK for himself. Despite going undrafted, the Arizona Cardinals signed him to a three-year, $1,495,100 contract. The deal included a $10,100 signing bonus and performance-based escalators.

The performance-based escalators proved to be crucial, as Jefferson earned an extra $132,000 because of them. There’s no way to tell for sure, but odds are the escalators were tied to the number of games and snaps he played.

In all, Jefferson appeared in all 16 regular-season games and logged 202 defensive snaps, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Yes, 12.6 defensive snaps per game is an anemic amount, yet that didn’t stop the playmaking safety from making his presence felt.

The limited opportunities forced Jefferson to work that much harder when he was on the field. Coincidentally enough, the hard work paid off. By the end of the year, Jefferson’s workload had increased, and pundits from around the league were taking notice.

The analysts at PFF awarded the rookie safety with a plus-2.1 grade overall. For those of you who watched Jefferson, this should come as no surprise. He was a sound tackler who dominated the run game week in, week out.

NFL Game Rewind

Yet, like any other rookie, Jefferson experienced his fair share of growing pains. 

On more than one occasion, the versatile defender was burnt to a crisp through the air. Per PFF, opposing quarterbacks targeted Jefferson nine different times in coverage and completed 88.9 percent of their passes for 71 yards. One can live with the 8.9-yard reception average, but the 99.5 quarterback rating (in his coverage area) has to change. 

NFL Game Rewind

Jefferson needs to spend the offseason dissecting his faults in coverage—that way he can get back to playing the pass the way he did at Oklahoma. Here’s what Ryan Alfieri of Bleacher Report had to say about his coverage skills prior to the draft last year:

A fluid athlete with excellent play-recognition skills, Jefferson is a comfortable player in deep zone coverage. His closing speed is phenomenal and can deliver the big hit when given the chance. He also has a very good backpedal, and his loose hips allow him to change direction with ease.

The praise for his skill set didn’t stop there. Alex Brown of Optimum Scouting believed Jefferson’s coverage ability at the collegiate level would make him an eventual first- or second-round pick, via Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting

As a coverage player, his instincts and experience in deep coverage are readily apparent in the way he remains balanced, coordinated and in position to make a play when reading the route developments. Utilized much closer to the line of scrimmage in Brent Venables system as a robber zone defender and slot cover guy, Jefferson in 2012 has been tasked with even more coverage responsibility within Mike Stoops’ defensive scheme; putting together two seasons of tape at both safety positions and excelling either close to the line of scrimmage or in deeper coverage, expect Jefferson to be highly sought after should he declare for the draft as a first or second round choice.

Even though there is plenty of room for improvement at the pro level, it’s clear that Jefferson has what it takes to progress and perform at a high level versus the pass. This, in turn, means Jefferson is the Cardinals' answer at the strong safety position in 2014. 

He may be a bit undersized as far as NFL standards go, but the tape doesn’t lie. In addition to being an enforcer against the run, Jefferson showed that he has fluid hips. At a moment’s notice, he can flip his hips and run with opposing wide receivers. 

When a strong safety is asked to play close to the line of scrimmage and cover pass-catchers in the slot, it’s crucial he has proper fluidity in his hips. Without proper fluidity in his hips, he wouldn’t last. He would be out of the starting lineup in a hurry. 

Another thing Jefferson does well is cover in-line tight ends. This is music to head coach Bruce Arians’ ears, because Todd Bowles’ defense couldn’t cover tight ends to save its life in 2013. 

Miscommunication, aggressive approaches and mental errors appeared to be the three biggest culprits in terms of Arizona’s tight end woes. Matt Harmon of Backyard Banter ran a great piece during the season that touched on what is happening in coverage versus the tight end and how it can potentially be fixed:

Upon looking through the eye in the sky, it can be concluded it is not personnel issues that are preventing the Cardinals from effectively defending tight ends. Instead, it seems that a number of minor mistakes and undisciplined tendencies that have crept into this defense has caused them to falter pretty significantly in one area. Todd Bowles and his players must dial down the aggressiveness ever so slightly, prevent miscommunications, and foster the growth of this unit into a more cohesive one in all situations. 

Harmon is right: It’s definitely not a talent issue, and the Cardinals should foster the growth of this unit, which means the rumors of the organization drafting a safety on Day 1 of the draft need to die. 

Jefferson has just as much talent and upside as Jimmie Ward and Deone Bucannon. In fact, he may have more talent. Jefferson received a higher scouting grade from than Ward and Bucannon did.

Moreover, Matt Miller of Bleacher Report compared Jefferson to Pro Bowl safety William Moore. 

If he develops into a player that resembles Moore in any shape or form, the rest of the NFL is in serious trouble. Just imagine Jefferson and Tyrann Mathieu patrolling the back end of Bowles’ defense at an unprecedented level. 

It truly is amazing what two competent front-office members like Arians and general manager Steve Keim can do for a team’s win-loss record. The duo’s eye for talent helped the Cardinals go from 5-11 in 2012 to 10-6 in 2013. That’s incredible based on the fact the NFC West is by far the toughest division in football. 

Without a doubt, Jefferson won’t be the last potential starter Arizona snags at the conclusion of the draft. One should expect Arians and Keim to hit on a couple more undrafted free agents this year since the draft is being identified as one of the “deepest” drafts in recent memory.