The first thing that comes to mind every time I think of Ravens safety Tony Jefferson is a quote he made during an interview with NFL Network’s Andrew Siciliano shortly after signing with the Ravens. When asked why he turned down a larger offer from the Cleveland Browns to instead sign with Baltimore, Jefferson responded “I don’t play football for money, so…”. I really respect a player that didn’t let money alone decide his future, especially when that player was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2013 (despite the fact that he was ranked the 5th best safety in the 2013 draft by ESPN) and just finished playing out a contract worth only $1.49 million over 3 years . In another interview with Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit, he was quoted as saying “I love the game way too much to let money be the deciding factor in what I do.” It was supposedly a significant amount of money that he passed on too. Mike Garafalo tweeted that the offer from Cleveland was “the most by far”. It didn’t matter. Tony Jefferson saw something in Baltimore that he really felt fit him; two somethings, actually. When he made his mind up to come to Baltimore, Jefferson jumped on Madden to see if he looked good in purple and black. “I am a guy of swagger, so I gotta check the swag at all points before I make a decision,” he told NFL.com. “I put myself in different uniforms on Madden to see what will look better. Ravens did look good, though.” He even packed his PlayStation for his trip to sign his contract in Baltimore. You gotta love that about him.
The other something that Jefferson saw with the Ravens, the one factor that mattered most to him, was the fit. “I feel like this style fits me. I love to hit, and do that type of stuff. And I think that’s the culture, and that’s what I want to be a part of” Jefferson said in an appearance on NFL Total Access. And if really did seem to be a great fit for a safety who had a reputation of being very aggressive and physical. “I get really pumped up and excited when I talk about the scheme that I’ve seen so far through [organized team activities] and minicamp. I feel like I’m going to be able to make a bunch of plays in this defense. [Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees] loves to bring pressure, and that’s what Arizona did. I’m used to that.” While Jefferson did have a solid first season in Baltimore, I think even he would say that it fell short of expectations.
The year before landing with the Ravens, Jefferson had a great season with the Arizona Cardinals, finishing with 96 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 5 pass breakups in just 14 starts. He finished 2016 as the 6th-highest rated safety, according to Pro Football Focus. So when he finished his first season in Baltimore with 79 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception and 2 passes defensed, and ranked as the 25th-best safety, while solid, it certainly wasn’t the same dominant performance.
Watching tape from his last season in Arizona, he’s got a nose for the football, he was physically imposing, and was rarely out of position. He seemed so sure of himself and showed no hesitation in his play, seeming to go full speed at all times. Last season, he didn’t do a lot of those things quite as well. He seemed hesitant and unsure at times. There were other times that he wasn’t quite as physically imposing. He struggled in coverage against tight ends and some running backs. The question is why did he seemingly take a step back with a team that fit him so well?
While he can probably tell you a lot better than I can, I feel like there’s one big reason: he wasn’t used in a manner that allowed him to play full speed like he did in Arizona. The fit that he saw with Baltimore, what he envisioned, never quite came to fruition in 2017. The team was physical and aggressive under then defensive coordinator Dean Pees, but not nearly to the level we will see in 2018 under new defensive coordinator Don Martindale. I believe Coach ‘Wink’ will be a godsend of sorts for Jefferson. This guy really embodies the defenses of old in Baltimore. The Rex Ryan, Chuck Pagano days. That aggressive, fast, physical, in your face kind of defense that Jefferson was referring to when he signed with the Ravens. The one he thought he was going to play on last year. Martindale will get the team back to that, effective immediately, and Jefferson will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the coaching change.
This season, I expect that Wink will use Jefferson in a manner that plays more to his strengths: up in the box. That’s where he can really get back to wreaking havoc on opposing defenses. Jefferson is great in run support, and being up closer to the line of scrimmage will get him more involved in that aspect. It should also allow him more opportunities rushing the quarterback, something else that he does pretty well. But mostly, it will let him just read and react. He’s an intelligent football player and getting him in his comfort zone should get him back to being that ‘full speed at all times’ guy he was.
I guess what I’m really saying is that I think Dean Pees tried to get “too cute” last year with Jefferson and Eric Weddle. I don’t think Martindale will make the same mistake. Let Weddle primarily handle coverage and let Jefferson mostly play closer to the line of scrimmage and be the physical enforcer that I think he’s gonna be in 2018. The dominant player he was in his final year in red and white. But now, he can actually look good while doing it, rocking the black on black of Baltimore.