UNDRAFTED FOUR YEARS AGO, HE HIT THE FREE-AGENT MARKET LAST WEEK AS THE NFL'S MOST-SOUGHT-AFTER SAFETY. BUT BEFORE HE COULD JOIN HIS NEW TEAM, HE HAD SOME BUSINESS TO TEND TO
TONY JEFFERSON is in his living room, seated on a sofa near a picture window overlooking San Diego's downtown harbor. His phone rings; it's Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who's calling to welcome the 25-year-old free-agent safety to Baltimore. Jefferson quietly says the things you'd expect: I'm excited, Coach; I'm ready to make plays. After he hangs up, a smile rushes across his face.
"That was John Harbaugh. My new head coach, man! My freakin' new head coach!" Jefferson stands up and doles out fist bumps.
He's just agreed to a $36 million contract, with $19 million guaranteed. Notably, the deal only covers four years, which means Jefferson will hit the market again before he turns 30. "Going in, I was only going to do a four-year deal—that's common sense," he says. "Because that number, 30? In this league, that's deadly."
It's now 2:05 p.m. on Thursday, March 9, the first official day of NFL free agency, and it's decided that Jefferson will take the next flight to Baltimore rather than wait for the red-eye. The next plane leaves at 3:15 and happens to have a layover in Phoenix, where Jefferson spent four seasons playing for the Cardinals. But first he has to swing by a nearby department store to pick up the new suit he bought for his introductory press conference; the store has just finished tailoring it. Jefferson retrieves a duffel bag and a black-and-gray backpack, which he turns upside down as if unloading a sack of Halloween candy. Shoes and shirts spill out onto the floor.
"I gotta pack this; I take it wherever I go," he says as he unplugs his PlayStation 4 and expertly wraps the cords before fitting it all into the backpack.
His publicist looks on, mouth agape. "Are you taking a toothbrush? Deodorant?" she asks. "Do you have other clothes?"
Jefferson replies with a series of grunts. Most of that stuff is in the duffel ... he thinks. Certainly enough of it. Anyway: The sweats and the T-shirt that he's wearing now will suffice when he flies back from Baltimore—although he has no idea when that will happen.
Bags in tow, he heads for the car, calling out one more time, "Ravens!"
ONE DAY before his life was officially turned upside down, Jefferson sat on the same couch, calling family and friends to tell them he was moving to Baltimore. He started with his parents—who still live in the house Tony grew up in, a short drive from where he resides with his longtime girlfriend, Jennel, and their two-year-old son, Tony III—and worked his way through his siblings. Though the neighborhood is slowly gentrifying, he's anxious to put his new riches toward moving his parents elsewhere.
Jefferson himself has never lived farther east than Norman, Okla., where he played for three years under Bob Stoops. After leaving school early with what he believed was a second-round NFL projection, he hurt his right hamstring in the predraft process. He ran a 4.75 in the 40-yard dash and went undrafted. "Fourth round goes by. Fifth round. Sixth round...." he says. "And my agent is like, 'I don't know what's going on.' " After not getting picked, Jefferson told his agent to just choose his team.
Which is how Jefferson landed in Arizona. He played mostly on special teams as a Cardinals rookie in 2013; one year later, as Tyrann Mathieu battled injuries, Jefferson saw action on 64% of the defensive snaps. Circumstances were mostly the same in '15 (72%), but he still wasn't starting regularly.
"I hated it," Jefferson says. "I tried to be productive ... but you can't really get in a groove that way—you're in for a series and then for the next two they go to the base D and you're out. That was a tough hurdle."
Jefferson finally became a regular starter last season after veteran Rashad Johnson departed in free agency. In Arizona's diverse scheme, the strong safety must be adept in the box, as well as in coverage, where he often matches up in man, and here Jefferson (who was re-signed in 2016 for $1.7 million as a restricted free agent) flashed every week on film. After the season he became an unrestricted free agent. When Eric Berry signed a six-year, $78 million deal with the Chiefs in late February, with $38.7 million guaranteed, Jefferson suddenly became the most coveted safety on the market.
Speculation about his future picked up. Raiders fans envisioned him as a savior in Oakland; pundits circled the Bears, Redskins and Titans as teams with needs. The Browns, with their $100 million in cap space, eventually became the favorites. Their safeties last season missed tackles the way DeAndre Jordan misses free throws: badly and often.
On March 8, one day before free agents could officially sign, Jefferson was tracking rumors on his phone. The most popular one came from the NFL Network's Mike Garafolo, who tweeted: Browns have a legit shot at landing S Tony Jefferson, are offering him the most money by far, sources tell me.... Ravens in it too.
Jefferson had deleted his Twitter account a few years ago—"life is so much better without it," he says—but he was back on the social media platform last season after learning that certain retweets counted as Pro Bowl votes. (He still didn't make it.) As he zipped down the highway, en route to visiting his old coach at Eastlake High before leaving town, he examined his feed. Jefferson owns one of those giant trucks that requires rock-climbing gear to get in and out of, and he drives his black Ford F250 the same way he plays football: with speed, stop-start quickness and assertive changes of direction. Accelerating down one hill, his phone cradled in his right hand near the steering wheel, he created the kind of gut-dropping sensation experienced on roller coasters. There's nothing angry or even impatient about his driving; he's just all eagerness boiling over.
Between Twitter scrolls he fielded texts from friends and calls from his agent, Joel Segal, who on Day One of free agency rang exactly 27 times with reports from the three teams in hottest pursuit: the Ravens, the Browns and the Jets. Jefferson says Cleveland offered $1.5 million more per year than Baltimore, but, he later explained, "I love the game way too much to let money be the leading factor in what I do."
Noticeably absent from the discussions were the Cardinals, who had essentially removed themselves with their offer back in December. Or, as Jefferson puts it, "They low-balled me. The very first offer, which was disrespectful, was three years for $12 million, with $6 million guaranteed. We didn't even reply to that. And then about a month and a half ago they offered four years for $24 million, $12 million guaranteed. They told my agent they wanted to show they were serious." (In an email, Cards GM Steve Keim told The MMQB that Jefferson "deserves all of the good things that are headed his way.... The unfortunate reality of the business is that you can't keep all of your good players. But it certainly doesn't diminish the great affection and high regard we will always have for Tony.")
On the drive to Eastlake, conversation drifted to the style of defense Jefferson's new team plays: mostly a traditional zone scheme, with defenders dropping to landmark areas. Baltimore employs fewer matchup concepts out of zone than Jefferson played in Arizona. "I'm definitely inclined to [run with receivers on routes]," he said. "I'm not used to letting them go."
The Ravens know Jefferson is accustomed to playing this way, and their defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, has a history of tailoring his scheme to fit his personnel. With Jefferson joining Eric Weddle, Pees may now have the most versatile safety tandem in football.
Jefferson is a deft run defender and blitzer off the edge. He's also markedly improved at covering in space, and this enables him to play zone or improvised man-to-man. He's qualified to take on tight ends in press-man coverage off the line of scrimmage, which is critical given how often tight ends split out wide these days. For the Ravens, that frees up Weddle, the 10-year vet with the Einsteinian football IQ, who can now roam free before the snap, disguising his looks and cheating toward anticipated routes, similar to what Troy Polamalu did with such success in Pittsburgh. Jefferson hadn't met Weddle yet—"he was playing when I was young," Jefferson says with a laugh—but the two men were in constant communication in the days leading up to Jefferson's signing. (At one point Jefferson went two hours without replying to a text; he fears he may have sent Weddle into a tizzy.)
Jefferson wasn't a natural safety at Eastlake. He played running back and then weakside linebacker before eventually moving to the secondary, where he became known as the president of the "Get Beat Deep Club." "He was just so aggressive," said his old coach, John McFadden, recounting some of the follies made by the most talented player he's ever coached. Jefferson, listening nearby, cackled.
As he headed back to his truck, Jefferson pointed out the spot where he and Jennel, who was one year behind him in school, first kissed. He was embarrassed by the lengths to which he went in pursuing her. "I was the only senior not hanging out on the senior lawn," he said. "I was over where the juniors were."
AT 2:45 P.M. on Thursday, Jefferson exits the department store with his suit, loads it into his truck and claims the passenger seat. His publicist is driving now and she peels out, the truck again hurdling forward in a manner that makes one contemplate calling loved ones. At one point she turns and asks, point-blank, "Who has been more nerve-racking to ride with, me or Tony?"
Jefferson is on his phone again; he takes no notice. Asked if he feels nervous about catching a flight that leaves in 30 minutes, he calmly says no. It's as if he's already gone through security and checked in at the gate. To an outsider, he's in Baltimore already.
Want more? The MMQB's Andy Benoit gives out team-by-team free-agent activity grades at on.si.com/nfl-fa-teams, and Chris Burke analyzes every big acquisition at on.si.com/nfl-fa-players
A.J. BOUYE, CB
JAGUARS 5 YRS/$67.5M
ALSHON JEFFERY, WR
EAGLES 1 YR/$9.5M
BRANDON MARSHALL, WR
GIANTS 2 YRS/$11M
DESEAN JACKSON, WR
BUCS 3 YRS/$33.5M
MIKE GLENNON, QB
BEARS 3 YRS/$45M