Nearly three years ago, Quinton Jefferson found his NFL career at a crossroads.
Originally drafted in the fifth round by the Seahawks one year earlier, the 293-pound defensive lineman had struggled to stay healthy in his brief stint with the organization. He missed the bulk of his rookie season with a torn ACL and after the team acquired Sheldon Richardson in a trade with the Jets, he became expendable and was waived before the start of the regular season.
Typically when a team recycles a failed late-round pick in such quick fashion, it spells doom for a player like Jefferson, who had battled durability issues back to his time at Maryland. Though he offered the positional versatility to play defensive end and defensive tackle, the Rams didn't hang onto him on the active roster after claiming him off waivers, forcing him to settle for joining the practice squad.
It was quite the fall from grace for a player who had been drawing raving reviews from the Seahawks coaching staff prior to his injury-riddled rookie season. He would have to work his way back onto an NFL roster with minimal pay.
But unexpectedly, Jefferson's fate took another 180 degree turn less than one month later amid unfortunate circumstances in Seattle.
Squaring off against the Colts on Sunday Night Football, revered Seahawks pass rusher Cliff Avril exited in the first quarter after being accidentally kicked in the chin and experiencing numbness in his arms. Though his team won handily, Avril suffered a serious neck injury that ultimately ended his season and forced him to retire.
Just four weeks into the season, Seattle needed to quickly find a capable replacement to enter Seattle's defensive line rotation in Avril's place. In a tight spot financially, making a trade would be difficult and the free agent market resembled a barren wasteland.
With few alternatives, general manager John Schneider worked swiftly to re-sign Jefferson, plucking him off the Rams' practice squad.
Though Jefferson only dressed for six games the rest of the season and his top "highlight" may have been trying to climb into the stands in Jacksonville, he performed well enough to stick on the roster heading into the 2018 season. Originally re-signed out of necessity, he's made the most of his second chance with the franchise ever since.
Earning a starting job for the first time in his career two years ago, Jefferson racked up 25 tackles and 3.0 sacks while finishing third on the team with 15 quarterback hits. After being retained as a restricted free agent, he once again started 12 games last season, reaching double digit quarterback hits, swatting away three passes, and finishing second on the team with 3.5 sacks.
Per ESPN's Seth Walder, Jefferson posted one of the top four pass rush win rates for qualified defensive tackles in 2019, joining elite company alongside Arik Armstead and Chris Jones.
Jefferson also stepped up his game in the postseason, registering 2.0 sacks and three quarterback hits against the Eagles and Packers.
"He had a very, very good year," coach Pete Carroll assessed. "I think coming in we didn't know that he would make another jump, but he did make a jump forward understanding the game, being flexible enough to play different spots. Play making. Knocking balls down in crucial situations. Making short-yardage tackles and plays, as well as causing some problems in pass rush."
Set to turn 27 years old later this month, Jefferson underwent foot surgery shortly after the conclusion of the season and will be an unrestricted free agent on March 18. Due to his injury history and scheme-reliant skills, other teams may pause when it comes to signing him to a multi-year deal.
But in the case of the Seahawks, while the front office still hopes to retain Jadeveon Clowney and/or Jarran Reed, re-signing Jefferson should also take top precedence on their offseason agenda.
Given his size, strength, and ability to effectively rush the passer from anywhere on the defensive line, Jefferson is the Swiss army knife in the trenches who consistently proves invaluable in Seattle's 4-3 scheme. Even though he'll never be a double-digit sack producer, he's the type of player whose impact often goes beyond the box score and should come at an affordable price.
Putting his success in perspective, Jefferson rebounded from nearly hitting rock bottom a few years ago to resuscitate his career. Carrying a rock on his shoulder, he became a key contributor for back-to-back playoff teams, earning the respect of his teammates and coaches in the process.
For that reason alone, the Seahawks should be itching to get a deal done, keeping one of their most underrated players in the Pacific Northwest for several seasons to come.