NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
After taking a look at what Patrick Chung is worth to the Patriots and examining a potential replacement for Chung, here is another potential safety option that the Patriots will be looking at this fall.
Tony Jefferson arrived at Oklahoma in 2010 and found himself assuming a wide variety of roles during his true freshman season, playing in the Sooners’ nickel package as a rover, acting as a strong safety at times and an outside linebacker at others.
Although Jefferson was asked to process a significant amount of information, he handled the responsibilities admirably, finishing the season with 65 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, seven passes defended, and two interceptions (one of which was returned for a touchdown).
Jefferson’s play earned him a 2010 Freshman All-American selection by The Sporting News. Starting safety Quinton Carter (fourth round, Denver Broncos) graduated from the team after the 2010 season, prompting then-defensive coordinator Brent Venables (who is now occupying the same position at Clemson) to increase Jefferson’s role in the defense. Jefferson would no longer be relegated to sub packages, but rather starting at safety in Carter’s place.
In July, Jefferson was named to the 2011 Jim Thorpe Award Preseason Watch List and did not disappoint, building on his level of production from 2010 and finishing his sophomore campaign with 74 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, three passes defended, four interceptions, and a forced fumble. At the end of the season, Jefferson was named an All-Big 12 Conference Honorable Mention by the league’s coaches.
Despite entering the season listed as a free safety, Jefferson’s role as a sophomore included a number of similarities to his role as a freshman. Jefferson is frequently used as an in-the-box strong safety in Oklahoma’s defense despite his lack of prototypical size for the position. On some plays he is lined up deep in zone coverage, but most frequently he is positioned a yard or two off of the line of scrimmage as if he were an extra linebacker or in the slot covering an inside receiver.
The Sooners ask Jefferson to play both man and zone coverage, and Jefferson blitzes from the edge surprisingly often as well. Jefferson’s ability to handle these responsibilities effectively makes him an excellent fit for Mike Stoops’ zone blitzes, which emphasize overloading pass protections with zone coverage shells behind the blitz; Jefferson’s versatility will also likely appeal to a team such as New England, where the Patriots heavily emphasize disguising coverages and schematic flexibility.
Although he is a well-rounded prospect, the strongest aspect of Jefferson’s game is his ability to play downhill as a run defender and blitzer. Jefferson’s success as an in-the-box defender can largely be attributed to his instincts and aggressiveness. Jefferson is effective at disguising his responsibilities when he lines up on the line of scrimmage by showing blitz looks and either dropping into zone coverage or rushing the passer.
Jefferson is quick to support the run and flashes the ability to make big hits; however, Jefferson must improve the consistency of his tackling technique, as too many ballcarriers seem to escape from his grasp. Despite his lack of size, Jefferson holds up well against blocks and often puts himself into position to make a play on the ball by using his agility and hands to free himself from offensive linemen. As a blitzer, Jefferson gets off the line quickly; although his initial burst is not elite he displays a tight bend as a pass rusher and possesses a strong closing burst. The Sooners primarily rush Jefferson off of the edge but have also rushed him from deep in the secondary.
Jefferson’s ability to change directions smoothly suggests the potential to develop into a quality coverage safety, although at times Jefferson’s route recognition appears to be raw and he allows too many completions when targeted. NFL teams are increasingly asking their safeties to cover inside wide receivers in the slot and Jefferson has extensive experience in that phase of the game as well, although his lack of size and bulk may prevent him from matching up effectively on larger tight ends.
Jefferson’s ball skills are a strength of his game; he is occasionally a split-second late in making a play but has already grabbed six interceptions in two years despite his extensive in-the-box responsibilities. Jefferson’s backpedal is fairly quick, although he gets high at times and improving his technique in that area should be a coaching point upon reaching the NFL.
Perhaps the most glaring question mark surrounding Jefferson is his lack of prototypical size for a strong safety – he is listed at just 5’10” and 199 pounds, which may prompt teams to consider him as a free safety prospect, where his size would be more in line with positional norms.
Jefferson looks more comfortable in zone coverage than man coverage, and is fast and rangy enough to handle single-high zone looks, so a potential conversion to free safety appears to be a transition Jefferson could successfully make . Although it would be a mistake for a team to neglect Jefferson’s ability to produce in the box as a pass rusher as well as against the run, the potential to play free safety will help Jefferson’s draft value in April.
Tony Jefferson has enjoyed two productive collegiate seasons thus far and is on track to be a high draft pick whenever he enters the draft; his lack of elite size may prevent him from being a first-round choice but it would be surprising if he were still available at the end of the draft’s second day.
Jefferson is a more athletic prospect than former Sooners safety Quinton Carter and New England asks their safeties to handle a variety of responsibilities. Jefferson has been asked to handle deep zone coverage, slot duty, and in-the-box run defense while blitzing more effectively than most other safety prospects and could realistically continue to perform those assignments in the NFL.
At the end of 2012 Jefferson could have appeared in as many as 40 collegiate games over three seasons and may wish to forego his senior season; if he opts to do so, New England would be wise to consider him as a potential second-round option should they once again find themselves in the market for a safety upgrade.