Tony Jefferson's journey to the NFL has been a humbling experience. He went undrafted in 2013, had to fight for playing time as a rookie and now has to deal with the rumors that the Arizona Cardinals may select a safety on draft day.
But none of that seems to faze him. Despite going undrafted, Jefferson is determined to show the league that he can thrive in the NFL and play the game of football at the highest level.
After I wrote an in-depth piece on Jefferson on April 15, he was nice enough to sit down with Bleacher Report and dish on his rookie season, the overall direction of the team and what it's like to play for defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
Bleacher Report: Have you ever figured out why you went undrafted? It's the million-dollar question.
Tony Jefferson: No, it's still unknown. There's some speculation and rumors about what went on, but even my agent and I were puzzled. I at least thought I was a third- or fourth-round safety. But the draft just kept going and I started seeing safeties get drafted that didn't even play last year.
B/R: Would you have gone back to college if you'd have known you were going to go undrafted, or was it all a part of the plan?
TJ: I think it was all in the plan because everything is so unbelievable still. Everything has panned out the way it should.
I was watching the draft and the networks put up the best available players, and my name wasn't even up there. I didn't understand. I was an All-American, I led the Big 12 in tackles, but it was just a bunch of speculation. Obviously, if I would have went back to Oklahoma, you never know what could have happened. I could have got hurt.
B/R: How does going undrafted motivate you as you head into Year 2?
TJ: It motivates me a lot. I'm just trying so hard for myself. Going undrafted was such a humbling experience for me, because I left college early with the expectation of getting drafted high. But I went to training camp and did my thing in the games and proved myself. I really worked from the bottom with the limited opportunities that I had.
Going into my second year, I want to be better than I was last year. I want to become a starter and make a name for myself in the league. Not only do I want to make a name for myself, I want to make a name for other guys who don't get the opportunity to get drafted. I want to show them that it's still possible to make a name for yourself in the league. I also want to show them that the draft, to me, is a bunch of hype and signing-bonus money.
Football is football. This is going to be a big year for me. I'm going to really invest myself into the Cardinals and into the team.
B/R: Based on the numbers, you struggled in coverage at times last season. Where do you think you need to get better at in coverage?
TJ: From a safety's standpoint, coverage is something we always want to work on. I think my biggest strength is still in the run game. That's something that I really like to do. I love to be in that box and see the ball get handed off and feel the run game.
Like you said, I feel like you always want to work on your coverage. We have to start covering tight ends a lot better than what we did last year. That's what I've been doing this offseason is coverage. I've been working on man-on-man and opening my hips. I think my ability to open my hips is perfectly fine, it's just a matter of using my technique. Honestly, I'm looking for that to be one of my biggest assets as well as my assets in the run game.
Next year will bring me closer to being a complete safety.
B/R: To piggyback off of what you said about covering tight ends, was covering the tight end something you did well at Oklahoma?
TJ: Yeah, when we played Notre Dame I was on Tyler Eifert the whole game. I think he caught two passes on me for about eight yards and one of them was really lucky. I had position on him and could have intercepted the pass and taken it back to the house, but let's not talk about that [laughter].
Like I said though, it's just about the little things. After some technique work, I think I will be fine.
B/R: Were you surprised when you found out some of your former coaches at Oklahoma bashed you behind closed doors?
TJ: Yeah, I was surprised. But I called them and asked them, and they said they didn't bash me. Like I said, to the day, I still don't know what really went on. But I think I have a pretty good idea as to what happened. It's over though.
B/R: Why did you choose to sign with the Arizona Cardinals? Was it Bruce Arians, Steve Keim, the lack of depth at the safety position or a combination of all three?
TJ: Once the draft was over and even during the draft, I was getting calls from teams. In fact, I was really close to signing with the New York Jets.
I had talked to Rex Ryan on a one-to-one basis, and he was telling me, "I think you're a great player, but we can't draft any safeties in this draft." However, they did say they would love to have me. They thought I would have a great chance at making the team and be an immediate contributor. He also said he didn't know why I was still on the board. When they saw me on the undrafted free-agent list, they were blown away. They told me they would love to have me.
So, initially I thought I was going there. And at one point, I was actually on my way to New York. Then, my agent talked to a couple personnel people in Arizona. So, I looked at the depth chart for both teams [New York and Arizona] and told my agent to put me on wherever. No matter what, I was about to go off and prove myself to everyone that passed me up.
At the combine, we [Jefferson and the Cardinals] had a really great interview and I got along with their coaching staff. So, I ended up choosing the Cardinals because it felt like a good fit for me.
B/R: Who have you formed a strong bond with in the locker room? Is there any particular player you look up to as a leader?
TJ: It's definitely Yeremiah Bell. He was pretty much my mentor. He has been in the league for about 10 or 11 years, so he's got quite a bit of experience. He took me under his wing and taught me little tricks that he learned when he was young. He also told me this playbook is not easy. It's pretty tough. But he applauded me and helped me through it.
I also had Patrick Peterson. During the games when I was playing, he would always tell me he knew what it was like and he had been there before, but he would say you got to step up to the occasion.
I really respect the guys in the locker room. I feel like that goes a long way with success on a team. And I feel like we had success last year because everybody was on the same page and we knew what we wanted to accomplish.
Coach saw the same thing, and he even told us that he wanted to keep this team as close as possible, because there are winners on this team. Plus, we added Antonio Cromartie. He's another older, positive guy who could possibly be a leader for us as well. With the way the team is going, I think we are headed in the right direction, and I'm happy to be a part of it.
B/R: How has the defensive scheme Coach Bowles employs challenged you as a player, both mentally and physically?
TJ: Coach Bowles is an awesome defensive coordinator. We kind of clicked ever since I first got to Arizona. I think he already knew what type of player I was because we had already met at the combine.
He understands that not every player is perfect. All he asks you to do is be accountable for yourself with the plays. He just wants you to study the playbook and have no mental errors. I'm telling you this guy is a genius with what he draws up. It's kind of amazing once he puts it all together. He works hard in the film room and goes above and beyond for us so we can be successful on the field.
You could see it from him. There were times when he was sick and straining, but he was out there anyways because he wanted us to be successful. He doesn't ask much from you. He just expects you to go out there to do your job and put yourself in the best position to make plays.
B/R: Has there been any indication as to which safety spot you will compete at? I ask that question because I saw you spent time at both safety positions last year.
TJ: That was a plus for me the whole year. I was able to play both free and strong, and my coaches really applauded me on that.
Unfortunately, one of our safeties, Rashad Johnson, went down a few times last year with injuries, so I was able to step in and make an impact when I had to.
To be honest, I feel like the coaches have a unique way of putting me in the ball game because I can play strong and free, which helps my case a little bit more.
TJ: I would have to say Colin Kaepernick. Not to say Russell Wilson can't, but I think Kaepernick reads defenses better. I also feel like Colin has more of an arm to get the ball to his intended target, because he's taller than Russell.
The balls Colin throws are humming. They are really fast. And he can run. Both are equally very good quarterbacks, but if I had to choose one I would probably choose Colin because of his ability to read defenses and check it. I've seen it firsthand where he has seen us in one coverage, and he calls it out.
B/R: People want to know where your sense of humor comes from. Will you tell them?
TJ: All in all, I want to pursue acting. It's just something I've always wanted to do. I've been like this since I was little. I've always been funny, and people always thought I was a hilarious guy. And that's just who I am. I'm just being me. I don't know where my sense of humor comes from, maybe my pops.
B/R: Who was your favorite NFL player growing up?
TJ: It's funny you ask that, because coming out of high school and Pop Warner I was a running back. And I got recruited to play running back, so growing up in San Diego I had the chance to watch Reggie Bush. He was always one of my favorite players. I felt like we had the same exact playing style as a running back. Plus, it helped that I got to watch him firsthand.
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