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 teams have to answer is when they believe Jefferson can contribute and that will determine his spot on their draft boards in this deep class.
Jefferson in many ways is a corner who had the instincts and range to play safety. Now, he also has the size to do the job. He is incredibly smooth in areas such as his backpedal, his ability to flip his hips, and acceleration when breaking on the football are excellent giving Jefferson the ability to man up slot receivers and always be a threat to intercept passes. He should have no problem manning up tight ends but he needs to prove it physically.
Jefferson proved to be an intimidating presence at free safety as teams rarely tested him in either zone or man coverage. They did everything they could to avoid him when they were passing the ball allowing him to shut down a large area of the field. When teams made the mistake of throwing close enough for him to get his hands on the ball, he made the play and is a natural when it comes to his ball skills, catching the ball and attacking it at its highest point. Jefferson played a significant amount of time playing centerfield and he could be able to make a transition when he is able to focus on covering a much smaller area of the field.
While his tackling is a major area of concern, his instincts are tremendous in both the pass and the run. He has been a hit or miss tackler, but he definitely got himself in position to make those plays near the line of scrimmage. Jefferson displays an impressive acumen for the game of football and how offenses are attacking the defense.
The biggest issue facing Jefferson is his 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.
Jefferson is ready to contribute immediately as a pass defender and make plays on the football as a rookie, but the question is if and when he will become a consistent player attacking the run and tackling. He can start out as a nickel or star role initially if teams are not convinced he can start right out of the gate. This gives teams that a Big Nickel package with three safeties on the field but with the coverage ability of three corners. Jefferson has the potential to develop into not only a starting safety but an impact player at the next level if he is willing to commit to being a more fundamental tackler. Teams that think he can start now could take Jefferson as high as the second round while teams who are not will be looking at him in the third or possibly the fourth round.