The day after the regular season concluded, Arizona Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians said he believes the core of the team's roster is already in place and set up for the team to once again enter next season with sky-high expectations.
Arians said many of the team's key pieces are already under contract, and that he has faith that general manager Steve Keim will be able to negotiate contracts with some of the free agents Arians hopes to see return in 2017.
One of the main questions the Cardinals must answer this offseason is whether safety Tony Jefferson has done enough to earn a spot as a member of the team's core.
The Cardinals' leading tackler in 2016, Jefferson finished the year with 96 stops, 2.0 sacks, five passes defended, two forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered. Pro Football Focus ranked Jefferson among the top five graded safeties in the NFL this season, just a year after Jefferson was forced to sign a one-year contract to return to the Cardinals because he was not highly sought after in free agency.
Jefferson's appeal to other NFL franchises might change this offseason, but on Monday, the hard-hitting safety let it be known he wants to return to Arizona if possible.
"Of course I want to be here, they know that," Jefferson said.
Despite finishing the year on injured reserve as a result of an MCL sprain that sidelined him for the Cardinals' final regular season contest, Jefferson was one of the most pleasant surprises for Arizona this year after entering the starting lineup early in the season.
Initially slated to be compete for playing time at the back end of the team's defense with Tyrann Mathieu, Tyvon Branch and D.J. Swearinger, Jefferson became the Cardinals' most reliable option outside of cornerback Patrick Peterson in the team's defensive backfield.
Jefferson was an anchor for a defense that finished second in the NFL in average yards allowed per game, and his pending free agency figures to be a major storyline this offseason. Though Jefferson clearly wants to be considered a member of the core Arians spoke about, he knows at this point, he's on the outside looking in at the team's plans because of his status as a free agent.
"Core guys are going to be here, same coaching staff, so there will be opportunities I think with the leadership that's in this locker room, they can definitely get back to that," Jefferson said.
An undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma, Jefferson has spent all four of his professional seasons in the Cardinals' organization, and with his play in 2016, certainly earned the right to negotiate a healthy extension. However, with more than half of Arizona's starting defensive players slated to enter free agency, Jefferson and the Cardinals both know the team's management has a lengthy list of priorities to take care of in the coming weeks.
"Just let it play out, just going to try to let it (Jefferson's injured knee) get healthy and see what happens," Jefferson said when asked about his plans for the coming weeks."
Though Jefferson expressed disappointment that the Cardinals failed to reach expectations in 2016, he said his main objective was to improve the overall quality of his play, which he was able to do while playing out the terms of a one-year contract. Now, Jefferson hopes to use the chip on his shoulder he entered the NFL with to continue growing as a player --whether he's part of the Cardinals' plans or not.
"Mainly I didn't really want to prove anything, I just want to be better," Jefferson said. "Obviously I still had a chip on my shoulder, which I'll always have, but I just wanted to better myself, better my game and that's what I did."