"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Tony Jefferson
Experience: 4th NFL season
Contract status: 2016-$1,671,000
2015 season in review: After starting eight games for the Cardinals in 2014, Jefferson returned to the squad and started seven contests a season ago. The former undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma saw considerable playing time as Arizona's third safety behind Tyrann Mathieu and Rashad Johnson, and practically mirrored his statistics from 2014. Because Mathieu plays two thirds of his repetitions as a cornerback, Jefferson saw enough game action to rack up 78 tackles including 2.0 sacks. The 5-foot-11 safety also reeled in two interceptions, including a pivotal pick early in the season at home to seal a victory over the Baltimore Ravens. One of Jefferson's best games came against the Detroit Lions in week five, as he notched 12 tackles, an interception and a pair of forced fumbles in the Cardinals' blowout victory.
Projected roster status: Had this piece been written three years ago, Jefferson would have been lumped into the group of undrafted free agents who would need to surprise the coaching staff in order to make the Cardinals' roster. But in 2013, that's exactly what Jefferson did, and it's a path more than 15 percent of current NFL players have taken to secure a roster spot. After playing in all 16 games for the Cardinals in each of the last three seasons, Jefferson could have left the franchise this offseason and further depleted the team's secondary, but instead, he returns to a defensive backfield where he could see even more playing time this year. Though Jefferson was only tendered a one-year offer by general manager Steve Keim this offseason, Jefferson's odds of making the team are strong at this point as he's a proven commodity who's familiar with Arizona's scheme.
Projected depth chart status: Much like in each of the last two seasons, Arizona will likely ask Mathieu to walk down into the box, play quite a bit of cornerback, and fulfill a variety of roles. What this means is that regardless of whether Jefferson is listed as a starter on a weekly basis, he will likely still receive plenty of playing time as long as he can maintain his place on the depth chart ahead of players like D.J. Swearinger and Marqui Christian. With the addition of safety Tyvon Branch through free agency this offseason, the Cardinals have three players in Branch, Mathieu and Jefferson who will likely serve in some sort of a starting capacity because of how often Arizona shifts Mathieu around. If Jefferson can stay healthy, his playing time and production should mirror what he's been able to achieve over the past two seasons.
Position group analysis: Jefferson's return to the Cardinals this season gives the team a top-of-the-depth chart type of safety who can serve as a viable last line of defense. Keim has carefully crafted the defensive backfield on the Cardinals' roster, and most of the players on the depth chart have different specialties. Branch can play nickel corner and will be expected to contribute in man coverage, Swearinger is a hard-hitter over the middle who can walk up into the box, Mathieu is the X-factor who can align anywhere and have success, and so on and so forth. Jefferson is one of the more traditional safeties on Arizona's roster, and his skill set allows defensive coordinator James Bettcher to use the players around him more effectively. While Jefferson is more likely to serve in the "last line of defense role" than some of the other safeties on the roster who have particular skills, he's a needed piece who's knowledge of the team's scheme brings stability to the secondary.
Moving forward: It's difficult to say how much of a long-term vision the Cardinals have for Jefferson because they only offered the fourth-year player a one-year contract this offseason. The one-year deal isn't even worth 50 percent of what Branch will make in his first year with the Cardinals, and Branch's salary is set to jump in 2017. Jefferson's contract situation suggests the Cardinals may have been looking elsewhere this offseason, but elected to bring back Jefferson because he offered the team a level of familiarity at a reasonable price. Though the Cardinals may like Jefferson, it's difficult for the organization to plan for the future and hand out lengthy contracts right now to non-superstars because players like Calais Campbell, Chandler Jones and Mathieu are all playing on expiring contracts and the team must determine the most economical approach to keeping their top players in the fold.
Key skill: Ball skills
Standing just 5-foot-11, Jefferson is considered undersized for the safety position in the NFL. Jefferson's lack of ideal size, and a slow 40-yard dash time at the 2013 NFL Combine likely contributed to his status as an undrafted free agent, but that hasn't stopped Jefferson from succeeding in the NFL. In college, Jefferson was regarded as an all-around safety who could cover receivers as well as play up in the box and stop the run.
Since progressing to the NFL, Jefferson has maintained that reputation, and in 2015, he enjoyed his best season against the pass. Jefferson hauled in two interceptions and also recorded five pass break ups over the course of the year. Additionally, Jefferson forced three fumbles which demonstrates his spatial awareness and knack for making a play.
Jefferson's ball skills have improved in each season, and it's pivotal for a player with his combination of size and speed to be able to track down the ball. What Jefferson lacks in traditional size and speed we see from NFL safeties, he makes up for with his propensity to shield receivers from tracking down passes by demonstrating great technical skills.
When defending bigger receivers, Jefferson almost always keeps his inside hand in a strong position to impact a receiver's ability to make a catch, which is part of the reason he's succeeded in pass defense and can continue to do so this season.
Overall value: If Jefferson plays at the same level he did down the stretch run of the 2015 season, Arizona is set to reap the benefits of bringing him back on a one-year contract for just $1,671,000. Though it's likely Jefferson didn't command a great deal of outside interest this offseason, sometimes players slip under the radar and his production appears to have done so for the Cardinals. While Jefferson will likely never be a Pro Bowl-caliber player or merit consideration for a long-term contract from a team, Jefferson is a role player who has done his part to keep the Cardinals' secondary afloat, especially during the last two seasons. If Jefferson ends up playing behind both Branch and Mathieu, it's likely he'll rotate in as the third safety, ahead of a player like Swearinger who received the same contract offer from Arizona this offseason. As we've discussed, the third and even the fourth safety see plenty of playing time in the Cardinals' defense, so if Jefferson is mostly productive in his reps, Arizona will have secured him for what could feel like a bargain by season's end.