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Free Agent Spotlight: Strong Safety, Tony Jefferson

Our free agency spotlight series rolls on with a look at a strong safety who is familiar with Tampa Bay’s coaching staff.

The Buccaneers had the NFL’s worst pass defense during the early part of the 2019 season, but by year’s end, the secondary had made significant improvements. Heading into 2020, the general consensus is that all the team needs to really do to address the group is add a safety. Whether they do that with a veteran in free agency or through the draft obviously remains to be seen, but there is certainly no shortage of options out there.

Today, we take a look at a potential answer at the position that the Bucs could acquire in free agency: veteran strong safety Tony Jefferson.

TONY JEFFERSON’S CAREER THUS FAR

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After deciding to forgo his senior season at the University of Oklahoma, things got a little weird for Jefferson. There were reports that some of his former coaches had bad things to say about his work ethic to NFL scouts, though Jefferson and his coaches refuted those reports, which were eventually retracted. Whatever the reason for that was, no one really knows. But it was a bit of a surprise when he went undrafted in 2013, as the general belief was that he was going to be selected by the fifth round at the latest.

As an undrafted free agent, Jefferson signed with the Arizona Cardinals, who at the time were led by current Bucs coaches, most notably head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The 5-foot-11, 211-pound safety played sparingly as a rookie in 2013 before being named the team’s starting strong safety at the start of the 2014 season. He eventually rotated in and out of both the strong and free safety positions, then became the starting strong safety once again to start 2015.

The 2015 season saw Jefferson record a career-high two interceptions to go along with 78 tackles (58 solo), five passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two sacks. He followed up that big year with a career year in 2016, totaling a career-high 96 tackles (78 solo), two sacks, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Although he did end the season on injured reserve, he parlayed his success into a four-year, $34 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens.

In his first two years with the Ravens (2017 and 2018), Jefferson totaled 153 tackles (109 solo), 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, eight passes defensed and two forced fumbles. Then, unfortunately, his 2019 season was cut very short by a torn ACL, which he suffered in Week 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just a couple of weeks ago, on Feb. 14, the Ravens released him, making him a free agent.

WHY IT WORKS

All things considered, Jefferson would be a solid addition to a Bucs secondary that is hurting for experience. There is a lot of youth both at cornerback and safety, so having a seven-year veteran come in and lead the way—especially one who has been touted as a highly respected leader, a consummate teammate and a true competitor—would be a smart idea. Jefferson has never been the league’s best safety, but he has been more than serviceable and presumably has plenty left in the tank, considering he just turned 28 years old.

Plus, the familiarity Jefferson has with Arians and Bowles can only help. Having played in the system before, the learning curve wouldn’t necessarily be there like it would be for another player having to come in with no knowledge of it. That would allow him to focus more on his recovery from the ACL injury that cost him the final 11 games (plus a playoff game) in the 2019 season.

BUT...

The injury is the biggest thing. While he doesn’t have a long injury history—he had missed just three games total in the six seasons prior to 2019—things are tough any time you’re talking about an ACL injury. Assuming his recovery unfolds without a hitch or setback of any kind, he would likely be ready in time for the 2020 season. But even still, there’s no guarantee he returns to his true form. That type of injury can definitely be tricky, so there’s definitely a lot to consider for any team thinking about bringing him on board.

Plus, the Bucs would need to make sure he can mesh with their current group of safeties. With Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards, D’Cota Dixon and potentially Justin Evans figuring into the team’s plans, signing Jefferson would require them to like the fit. Again, this could be where the familiarity helps.

WHAT’S THE COST?

Considering he is in the middle of recovering from a torn ACL, Jefferson’s price may not be too astronomical this offseason. Just a few weeks ago, the Ravens signed his replacement to a three-year deal worth around $15 million, then saved $7 million by releasing Jefferson a few days later. With the injury, it’s unknown what the market will be like for the 28-year-old. Plenty of teams will come calling, but perhaps with offers of shorter-term deals. Spotrac doesn’t currently have a market value estimation for him, but he was due around $11 million in 2020 before being cut. The injury might bring that number down a bit when it comes to him signing with a new team.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

Truthfully, we really don’t know how much interest the Bucs have in adding a safety during free agency. Whitehead has shown plenty of flashes over the past two years, while Edwards was developing into a solid player near the end of the 2019 season. And Arians has gone on record about his desire to see more of Dixon and had good things to say about a potential return from Evans. So, with four guys potentially in the mix, there might not be too much space for a veteran in general, at least not one who is going to earn the type of money that likely warrants a starting spot from day one.

If the Bucs are looking for a veteran presence that will come in and play more of a backup role, Jefferson may not be that kind of guy. And if they are looking for a veteran to come in and take the bulk of snaps, they may see the ACL issue and feel more comfortable looking elsewhere.

MAKE THE DECISION

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So, there’s a lot to consider with Tony Jefferson. He’s a very good player that could add a veteran voice to the locker room, plus he has played under Arians and Bowles before. That’s all great. But the uncertainty about his ability to return to his old self after the torn ACL will definitely lead to some hesitancy, along with a whole lot of research and vetting.

But now, we ask you, Bucs Nation. What should the Bucs do when it comes to Tony Jefferson? Be sure to vote in the poll and discuss your thoughts in the comments down below!

Poll

When It Comes To Tony Jefferson, The Buccaneers Need To...

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Sign Him, No Matter What
    (10 votes)
  • 40%
    Make An Offer, But Keep It Reasonable
    (48 votes)
  • 26%
    Invite Him For A Cup Of Coffee And See Where It Goes From There
    (31 votes)
  • 19%
    Call Him Up If We Have A Need After The Draft
    (23 votes)
  • 5%
    Don’t Need Him
    (6 votes)
118 votes total Vote Now
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