BY: ED COLE
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Safety Tony Jefferson has officially been a free agent for less than 24 hours, and everyone, including Jefferson, is waiting to see if he returns to the Arizona Cardinals, or if he moves onto another team.
Jefferson was one of the pillars in Arizona’s secondary last season, and he really came into his own in his third season with the team. He was fourth on the defense in tackles with 75, to go along with two interceptions (one returned for touchdown), five passes defensed, three forced fumbles, four tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks.
Those numbers say that Jefferson is going to play for someone next season; it’s just a matter of when, not if.
Pro Football Focus compiled a list of their top five restricted free agents who should be considered, and Jefferson was their No. 2 choice, behind running back C.J. Anderson.
Here’s what they had to say about Jefferson:
The decision to tender only a low-level offer to Arizona safety Tony Jefferson was a surprise. Jefferson played over 900 snaps, including the playoffs, in 2015, helping the Cardinals to the NFC Championship game.
At his best playing centrefield, Jefferson finished as our 18th-overall safety this year. His coverage numbers are good, if unspectacular. Overall, he allowed 34 receptions from 55 targets for 408 yards, four TDs, a pair of picks, and four pass deflections.
He isn’t much of a playmaker, with just those two picks to his name so far in his NFL career, but is a reliable safety with lots of upside. Jefferson missed just 7-of-90 tackles last season, showing a propensity to prevent big plays rather than make them.
For a safety, who represents the last line of defense, the ability to bring runners down in the open field is crucial. Jefferson’s low-level tender offers the remaining 31 teams a chance to snatch a talented starter away from the Cardinals.
The situation with Jefferson is this: Arizona, like PFF said, gave Jefferson a low-level tender at $1.67 million, which gives them a chance to match any offer Jefferson might receive from other teams, but if they lose Jefferson, they receive no draft-pick compensation because they tendered him at the lowest level.
With the team reportedly signing safety Tyvon Branch to a two-year deal on Wednesday, that may or may not bode well for Jefferson and Rashad Johnson moving forward. Branch has played quite a bit of strong safety in the eight years he’s been in the league, and it’s yet to be determined what his role will be in the defense.
In other Cardinals news, PFF graded out every deal so far in free agency. While they were complimentary toward Branch, and what he’ll bring to the Cardinals, they only gave the deal a C+.
Is Branch an insurance plan in case Tyrann Mathieu can’t come back early next season? In any case, the Cardinals love themselves players who can do multiple things, and Branch is a guy who can line up all over the defensive backfield and provide solid play.
Branch hasn’t started all 16 games in a season since 2011, when he was with the Oakland Raiders. He played in all 16 games last season for the Kansas City Chiefs with one start.