Undrafted four years ago, Jefferson hit the free-agent market this week as the NFL’s most sought after safety. Before he could join his new team in Baltimore, he had to pick up a new suit from the tailor and make it to the airport with just minutes to spare
SAN DIEGO — Tony Jefferson is in his living room, on a sofa near a picture window overlooking the downtown harbor. His phone rings. It’s Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who is calling to welcome the 25-year-old free-agent safety to Baltimore. Jefferson quietly says the things you’d expect. I’m excited, coach; I’m ready to make plays. When the conversation ends, a smile rushes across his face.
“That was John Harbaugh,” he says in near disbelief. “My new head coach, man! My freaking new head coach!”
Then he stands up and fist-bumps the only other people around: his publicist and this writer.
He’s just agreed to a $36 million contract, with $19 million guaranteed. Notably, it’s only for four years, which means Jefferson will hit the market again before he turns 30. “Going in, I was only doing a four-year deal. That’s common sense,” he says. “Because that number 30? In this league, that’s deadly.”
It’s decided that Jefferson will take the next flight to Baltimore rather than wait for the red-eye as originally planned. It’s now 2:05 p.m. on Thursday. The next plane leaves at 3:15. It just happens to have a layover in Phoenix, where Jefferson spent his first four seasons, playing for the Cardinals.
Jefferson’s house is a six-minute drive to San Diego International Airport, but first he needs to pick up his new suit for his Ravens press conference. A nearby department store has just finished tailoring it. Jefferson retrieves a duffel bag and backpack, which he empties by turning upside down, as if unloading a bag of Halloween candy. Shoes and shirts spill to the floor.
“I gotta pack this, I take it wherever I go,” he says, unplugging his PlayStation and expertly wrapping its cords to fit into the backpack. His publicist looks on, mouth slightly agape.
“Are you taking a toothbrush? Deodorant?” she asks. “Do you have other clothes?”
In his rush, Jefferson replies with a series of grunts. He thinks most of that stuff is in the duffel bag. Certainly enough of it. And he believes the same sweats and T-shirt he’s wearing now will suffice when he flies back from Baltimore—even though he has no idea when that will happen.
Bags in tow, he heads for the car, calling out one more time, “Ravens!”
* * *
A day earlier, Jefferson sat on the same couch calling family and friends to tell them he was moving to Baltimore. He started with his parents, who still live in Jefferson’s grandmother’s house (she died in 2014). Tony and his three siblings, including a brother who is 15 years younger, grew up in that house, which is a short drive from where Jefferson lives with his longtime girlfriend, Jennel, and their 2-year-old son, Tony Jefferson III (“TJ3,” as Tony points out). Though the neighborhood he grew up in is slowly gentrifying, Jefferson is eager to move his parents into a new home.
The furthest east Jefferson has ever lived is Oklahoma, where he played for three years under Bob Stoops with the Sooners. After leaving early and believing he had a second-round NFL projection, he hurt his hamstring in the pre-draft process. He posted a 4.75 in the 40-yard dash and went undrafted. “Fourth round goes by. Fifth round. Sixth round,” he says. “And my agent is like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ ” After not getting drafted, Jefferson told his agent to just pick a team.
That’s how Jefferson landed in Arizona, where he played mostly on special teams as a rookie in 2013. A year later, as Tyrann Mathieu battled injuries, Jefferson saw action on 64% of the defensive snaps. Circumstances were mostly the same in 2015, with Jefferson playing 72% of the snaps. But he still wasn’t starting.
“I hated it,” he says. “I tried to be productive in spots … You can’t really get in a groove that way. You’re in for a series and then for the next two series they go to the base D. And you’re out. You’re just on the sideline. That was a tough hurdle.”
Jefferson finally got to start last season after veteran Rashad Johnson left in free agency. He played strong safety. In Arizona’s diverse scheme, the strong safety must be adept in the box, as well as in coverage, where he often matches up in man.
Jefferson, who was re-signed for 2016 as a restricted free agent at $1.67 million, flashed every week on film. He became an unrestricted free agent after the season. When Eric Berry signed a new long-term deal with the Chiefs in late February, Jefferson suddenly became the best safety on the market.
Speculation about his future picked up. Raiders fans believed he might go to Oakland. The Bears, Redskins and Titans were cited as teams with needs. The Browns, who entered free agency with more than $100 million in salary cap space, were the odds-on favorite. Their safeties last season missed tackles the way DeAndre Jordan misses free throws: badly and often.
The day before free agents could officially sign, Jefferson had been tracking rumors on his phone. The most popular came from NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, who tweeted: Browns have a legit shot at landing S Tony Jefferson, are offering him the most money by far, sources tell me +@RapSheet. Ravens in it too.
Jefferson had deleted his Twitter a few years ago—“life is so much better without it,” he says—but rejoined last season after learning that certain retweets counted as Pro Bowl votes. (He didn’t make it.) On our way to visit his old high school coach, he examined his feed while zipping down the highway. Jefferson drives one of those giant trucks that almost requires rock-climbing gear to get in and out of, and he drives it the same way he plays football: with speed, stop/start quickness and assertive changes of direction. Accelerating down the hill from his house created the same kind of gut-dropping sensation as a roller coaster. There’s nothing angry or even impatient about his driving; it’s just eagerness boiling over.
When Jefferson wasn’t perusing Twitter, he fielded texts from friends and calls from his agent, Joel Segal, who rang 27 times on the first day of free agency. Segal usually reported back about three teams in the hottest pursuit: the Ravens, Browns and Jets. The latter two both offered $1.5 million more per year than the Ravens, Jefferson says, but he would later explain, “I love the game way too much to let money be my leading factor in what I do.”
Noticeably absent from the discussions were the Cardinals. They had essentially removed themselves with their offer back in December.
“They low-balled me,” said Jefferson. “The very first offer, which was disrespectful, was three [years] for $12 [million], with $6 million guaranteed. We didn’t even reply to that. And then about a month and a half ago, they offered the four [years] for $24 [million], $12 [million] guaranteed. What they told my agent was they wanted to show they were serious.”
Cardinals GM Steve Keim told The MMQB via e-email, “In my time in the league there’s not a player that I've been more proud of than Tony Jefferson… The unfortunate reality of the business of course is that you can't keep all of your good players. But it certainly doesn't diminish the great affection and high regard we will always have for Tony.”
On the drive to Eastlake, Jefferson asked me about the Ravens. I told him that they played mostly a traditional zone scheme in 2016, with defenders dropping to landmark areas. There are fewer matchup concepts out of zone than he played in Arizona. “I’m definitely inclined to [run with receivers on routes]. I’m not used to letting them go,” he said.
The Ravens know Jefferson is accustomed to playing this way. Their defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, has a history of tailoring his scheme to fit his personnel. With Jefferson joining Eric Weddle, Pees may have the most versatile safety tandem in football.
Jefferson is a deft edge blitzer and run defender. He’s also markedly improved at covering in space. This enables him to play zone or improvised man-to-man. He’s also proficient against tight ends in press-man coverage off the line of scrimmage. That’s critical given how often tight ends now split out wide. For Baltimore, that means Weddle will no longer have to be the one to guard them. Instead, the 32-year-old veteran with the Einsteinian football IQ can roam free before the snap, disguising his looks and cheating toward anticipated routes, similar to what Troy Polamalu did in Pittsburgh.
Jefferson hasn’t met Weddle yet—“he was playing when I was young,” Jefferson says with a laugh—but the two were in constant communication in the days leading up to Jefferson’s signing. At one point Jefferson went two hours without replying to a text, which he fears sent Weddle into a frenzy.
Jefferson hadn’t been a natural safety at Eastlake High. He played running back and then weakside linebacker. He moved to the secondary as a senior, where he became known as president of the Get Beat Deep Club. “He was just so aggressive,” his high school coach, John McFadden, says. Standing in the school’s weight room, McFadden recounted some of the follies made by arguably the most talented player he’s ever coached. Jefferson, listening nearby, cackled.
Current Eastlake players are accustomed to Jefferson dropping by, but they still looked on in poorly disguised awe. Similar glances followed Jefferson as he walked around the rest of campus, visiting former teachers.
As he headed back to his truck, Jefferson pointed out the spot where he and Jennel, who was one year behind him in school, first kissed. He was embarrassed at the lengths he went to pursue her.
“I was the only senior not hanging out on the Senior Lawn,” he said. “I was over where the juniors were.”
* * *
At 2:45 on Thursday, Jefferson exits the department store with his suit. He calmly loads it into the truck and reclaims the passenger seat. His publicist peels out and resumes driving in a manner that makes a person contemplate calling loved ones. She’s taking extreme measures and asks me point-blank who has been more nerve-wracking to ride along with, her or Tony?
Still Tony, I say.
Jefferson, on his phone again, has no reaction to this. Asked if he feels nervous about having a flight that leaves in 30 minutes, he calmly says no as if the thought of missing it had never occurred to him.
Soon, we reach the terminal. “Alright,” Jefferson says, grabbing his bags. “Sorry that taking off here has been so crazy.” With a handshake-hug, he briskly walks away, bound for Baltimore.
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