It defies explanation that Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson wasn't drafted.
But the bottom line is, the Big 12's second-leading tackler last season signed with Arizona. Jefferson faced long odds to make the roster but recorded two interceptions last week against Dallas, a performance that has him on the Cardinals' radar.
“I played fast, how I can play,” Jefferson said in a telephone interview with The Oklahoman. “It showed coaches they can trust me a little bit. I feel that game will help.”
Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said earlier this week that Jefferson's recent performance gives the San Diego area product an opportunity to make the practice squad.
Jefferson has a higher goal.
“I want to make the team,” Jefferson said. “My focus is to go out and show them the potential I have and continue to make plays. After that, it's up to the coaches.”
Jefferson's first interception was off veteran Kyle Orton late in the first half. His second interception, which came off third-teamer Alex Tanney, was in the final four minutes. Players on the field at the end of preseason games usually are on the most-likely-cut list.
But Jefferson's solid play has moved him up to third team. His play in Saturday night's game against San Diego could be a huge factor in the Cardinals' final decision.
“He had a nice ballgame,” Arians told The Arizona Republic. “He had a really good week of practice. It's the first time it looked like the light went on. If he can build on that, he'll have a chance.”
Jefferson played free safety at OU. He's a strong safety with the Cardinals, who praised his playmaking skills when they aggressively pursued Jefferson after the draft.
“They told me they wanted me to basically do what I did in college, make plays,” Jefferson said. “That's what I'm trying to do. I feel I've been playing well in practice and it's showing in games. I just need to keep it rolling.”
Choosing the Cardinals
Jefferson, who also recorded five tackles in the Dallas game, fielded calls from several teams after going undrafted. Signing with the Cardinals is another puzzling chapter of Jefferson's story.
The Cardinals have a quality secondary that includes Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson. They also drafted Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, who appears to be a third-round steal if he stays out of trouble.
The Jets and Raiders were the other two teams on Jefferson's final list, but he and his agent liked Arizona.
“I picked the Cardinals because I thought they were a better situation for me,” Jefferson said. “They have a lot of guys on one-year deals. I've just got to keep making plays.”
Jefferson consistently made plays at OU, which is why it's puzzling that he went undrafted after leaving a year early.
He made an immediate impact with the Sooners. Jefferson started nine games as a freshman, recorded 65 tackles and was named the Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
Moving to the secondary full time, Jefferson recorded 74 tackles his sophomore year with a career-high four interceptions. In his junior year, he was named All-Big 12 and was second in tackles (119).
Jefferson's strength is blitzing, a trait he developed from his linebacker days. At OU, Jefferson recorded 22 tackles for loss in the backfield, the type of plays that kill drives. He finished with 258 career tackles, eight interceptions and 13 passes defended.
The most puzzling part of Jefferson falling completely off the draft board? He claims the NFL Draft Advisory Board gave him a second-round grade.
“I really don't know the exact reason why (I dropped),” Jefferson said. “It's still unknown. We were all surprised.”
One lightning-rod theory why Jefferson dropped was a report that OU coaches didn't give NFL executives glowing reports.
An additional concern is Jefferson sometimes struggles in man-to-man coverage. He ran a 4.75 at the NFL Combine and was downgraded for lowering his head early, which allowed running backs and receivers to bounce off, turning medium gains into long-gainers.
At 5-foot-11, 213 pounds, some teams also feel Jefferson lacks ideal size.
“Sure, I was disappointed,” Jefferson said. “But it is what it is. It's something I have to get over. Whatever it was, it's behind us now. I just have to move forward and take advantage of this opportunity I have now.”
There are some familiar faces. Former OU secondary teammates Javon Harris and Jamell Fleming are in Arizona's camp. Jefferson and Harris, another undrafted free agent, were roommates.
“Javon and I learned the playbook together. It's made it a little easier,” Jefferson said. “Jamell has helped when I ask questions about stuff, just the NFL in general.”
If he had it to over, would Jefferson return for his senior year?
“After the way it went down, who wouldn't?” Jefferson said. “You go back to improve (your draft position) because it's more money. But at the end of the day I felt it was a good decision to leave. It just didn't work out that way.”
One advantage to going undrafted is it leaves Jefferson essentially a free agent. To put Jefferson on their practice squad, the Cardinals must first put him on waivers. If Arizona takes that route, any of the 31 teams could sign him to their 53-man roster.
“I feel good right now where I'm at,” Jefferson said. “I just need to continue doing what I'm doing. If it doesn't work out here, hopefully someone else will pick me up.
“I was told something that's stuck with me: ‘It doesn't matter how you got here. It's what you do when you're here.' That's how I'm approaching it.”