Oklahoma is a program that typically sends out big time talent year in and year out and while this is not the year they expected in terms of the NFL Draft, there is still Sooner talent to be had. One of their most talented players in the draft is their safety, Tony Jefferson, who came onto the scene in a big way as a sophomore and had some big expectations coming into his junior year. He did improve as a junior, though not on the stat sheet and not in the areas that needed the most work. Jefferson’s ability in coverage got better, but the nagging problem he dealt with as a sophomore, his tackling, is still an issue of concern. Jefferson offers a ton of potential and if he can develop as a tackler while continuing to grow in his ability to play the pass, he could be a big time player. The question facing teams with Jefferson is when he can be a player for them and that will determine where he is picked somewhere between the second round and the fourth round, but he has the potential to be one of the best safeties in the class.
Jefferson was listed at 5’11” 212lbs this year, which is up 13lbs from the previous year. He still looks lean so it will be interesting to see what numbers come up when he is weighed in officially. Jefferson looks like a corner playing safety at this point with a frame that appears to have room for plenty of additional strength. Jefferson has impressive quickness and straight line speed and he should perform well in the drills as long as he is not carrying bad weight in an effort to bulk up. Scouts my disagree, but it seems like it would be better for Jefferson to be the lean player he has been effective and test well than try to add bulk he will not handle well and test poorly like Aaron Maybin did a few years ago. Provided people believe Jefferson can continue adding bulk, he will be tabbed as a free safety with corner skills who can bulk up into a more prototypical build. Regardless of his weight, based on his play on the field, he needs to get stronger and use the strength he has more effectively.
In coverage, Jefferson has tremendous instincts and a ton of range that allows him to have a huge impact on the defense. He has a ton of experience playing the deep safety, often times in a Cover-1 set up where he is the only deep player covering a huge amount of real estate. Jefferson’s statistics as it related to making plays in coverage were down from his sophomore year, but this seemed to be due to the fact that teams were not willing to test Jefferson. When balls were thrown deep, they were thrown to the sideline where Jefferson had the largest distance to cover. Jefferson has also shown a lot of ability in man coverage on slot receivers and again, teams were unwilling to test him. Jefferson has pretty good movement skills and breaks on the ball well. The few times Jefferson had a chance to get his hands on the ball, he made plays. Jefferson looks the part of a corner playing safety but with the instincts and awareness to cover a ton of ground and be the back end of a defense.
When it comes to tackling, Jefferson is incredibly inconsistent, both with his technique and what comes off as his confidence in his ability to bring down the ball carrier. Jefferson has plenty of quickness and speed to get in position to make tackles but rarely breaks down. Instead, he opts to lunge at the ball carrier and either throws himself at the ball carrier or dives at their legs. In either case, the results feel luckier than they are good. Jefferson was credited with 90 solo tackles as a junior, which is impressive, but actually looking at the tackles, they are not nearly as good as the box score appears and in spite of that impressive number, he still missed a ton of tackles as well. In addition to his unwillingness to break down and love to lunge, he does a poor job using his arms to wrap up tacklers consistently. When he does it, it works and he has success, especially when he wraps up the ball carriers legs. Too often Jefferson tries to shoulder bomb the opponent. Jefferson does show some pop when ball carriers or intended receivers are in a position to take a big hit and he is able to land them, but overall, the safety ends up looking like an uncomfortable corner as a tackler. The one thing that can be said for Jefferson is that he did have to cover a ton of real estate and there were certainly times when he could get a pass for less than stellar technique because he cannot be blamed for just getting the guy down by any means necessary. His tendency to dive at the opponent’s legs has had multiple ball carriers simply hurdle him and continue running. Jefferson needs to make an effort to be a good, technical tackler that can be counted on at the next level.
This carries over to Jefferson’s ability to contribute in run defense. The inconsistent tackling and poor technique hurts him, but at the same time, his instincts and ability to diagnose plays quickly is also apparent making it a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Jefferson, even from a deep safety position is able to read plays quickly enough is athletic enough to be in position to make plays in the backfield and at the line of scrimmage, but cannot close the deal consistently. The argument in favor of Jefferson is that strength and technique are easier to add than instincts and the ability to read. Jefferson can also contribute on the blitz but the same issues come up, but he does a good job of disguising his intent. He needs to be more physical.
Jefferson’s incredible range and instincts as well as his ball skills make him a great fit as a free safety who can also contribute as a nickel or star type player if he is groomed behind someone else initially. Jefferson has shown the ability to be counted on as a deep safety and might have an easier transition in the NFL because he is not being asked to cover so much of the field. With the field smaller both in terms of the amount of receivers on the field from play to play from the Big XII to the NFL as well as a smaller area he is responsible for could enable him to make a big impact early. Jefferson could be an early impact guy who could start right out of the gate, but it would not be a surprise if he is brought in initially as depth and as he fills out more physically and becomes a more consistent tackler, he breaks out.
In terms of his size and style, Tony Jefferson might remind some of former Tennessee Safety and current Kansas City Chief Eric Berry. Jefferson, like Berry, has incredible instincts to be a playmaker, but Berry was a far more physically confident player. If Jefferson can develop that strength and that mentality, he could be the same type of player. Both players have a wide range of skills that are tantalizing to NFL teams. Berry is a tremendous talent who should be ready to break out this year with a totally healthy knee. Jefferson has so much talent and potential just waiting to break out if he puts in the work to be a consistent technician, which is why he went ahead and declared for the NFL Draft.
It is so easy to see the talent people were so excited about coming off of Jefferson’s sophomore year and expected big things as a junior. Opposing teams saw it too and did everything they could to make sure Jefferson did not beat them, but he still did not have the year people expected. Some of that could be due to the amount of space he was asked to cover most of the time or the weight he added. In either case, Jefferson’s instincts and awareness to diagnose what is going on are evident, but he needs to continue his development to pay those plays off, especially as a tackler. As a result, teams may look at Jefferson and say, those are the things they cannot give a player, but the work technically and with strength, no problem. As a result, Jefferson could be picked as early as the second round but it would also not be a surprise to see Jefferson end up as a great value in the fourth round with the potential to be among the best in the class in a few years. The discussion in draft rooms with regards to Jefferson is how close they feel he is to contributing; if that answer is now as opposed to in a year or two, it will dramatically impact where he is on draft boards and where he is picked.
Iowa State 2012
Oklahoma State 2012
Texas, Oklahoma State, Iowa 2011
Videos courtesy of Draftbreakdown.com