TEMPE, Ariz. — No one has played better defense for the Arizona Cardinals through two games than Tony Jefferson.
The 24-year-old safety has 21 tackles, 18 of them unassisted. He has three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a recovered fumble.
Not bad for a guy who scraped his way onto the Cardinals’ roster as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma in 2013.
“I feel like I’ve had to fight every year to be on the team and to make a statement,” he said after practice Wednesday. “I always have a big chip on my shoulder. I never get complacent, just try to take advantage of every opportunity I get.”
Most of the time, Jefferson is playing “in the box,” near the line of scrimmage, where he can blitz the passer, defend the tight end or just race to the middle of the play as it develops. Tyrann Mathieu spent a lot of time in the box last year, too, leading to an All-Pro selection. But Mathieu has played only free safety thus far while he works his way back from knee surgery.
Jefferson acknowledges that it’s a position that allows him to make many plays.
“A lot of it has to do with scheme,” he said. “Coach Boettch (defensive coordinator James Boettcher) does a great job finding ways to use guys’ strengths. He’s let me be aggressive, attack, be physical if I want to be. And at the same time play man on tight ends and stuff. I’m actually having a really good time. I’m enjoying it right now. It’s just all coming together.”
Jefferson had 10 tackles in the opener against New England and matched his career high with 11 tackles in Arizona’s 40-7 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.
After the game, he mentioned the fact it’s “a contract year” for his improved play. But he downplayed that in the Wednesday interview.
“Obviously, I speak for anybody, you play well, you want to get paid,” Jefferson said, “but that’s just a small portion of it. Obviously I want to win a championship. Obviously I want to be one of the best safeties in the league. It may sound crazy to other people … but I have my own goals.”
Coach Bruce Arians has been around a long time and has seen how playing in a contract year seems to rev up a player’s performance.
“They always see those dollar signs,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing.”
When Jefferson was a restricted free agent last summer, the Cardinals tendered him the lowest possible offer — about $1.7 million a year. Nobody matched it and he was left in a take-it-or-leave-it situation.
“Teams don’t even like messing with the restricted stuff,” Jefferson said. “They can low-ball out and you either take it or you don’t. I hated that whole process. Hopefully things work out to where I’m here and don’t worry about hitting free agency.”
Jefferson has played in every game since he made the roster three seasons ago, but only sporadically as a starter.
When the Cardinals chose not to re-sign Rashad Johnson this offseason, the starting safety job was his.
“It means a lot. I’ve always wanted to be a starter,” Jefferson said. “That’s why I’m here. I’m not going to not take advantage of the opportunity. I’m going to do what I can to keep it, do what I can to build from it.”
Mathieu has watched Jefferson develop through the years.
“I’ve always thought Tony played well, even going back to our rookie year, or second year, him just continuing making strides,” Mathieu said. “I’ve always thought he was a good tackler. I’ve always thought he was underrated in coverage. I think he’s just really putting it all together this year. He’s been really focused. It’s a big year for him, a contract year.”
When Mathieu returns to his do-everything role, Jefferson doesn’t expect his playmaking to slow down.
“I don’t ever fathom the fact of me being on the field, I’m going to make less plays,” he said. “When I’m on the field, I’m looking to make the most plays I can and have the same mindset whether I’m playing d-line, d-end, safety, corner. It doesn’t matter. When I’m on the field, I expect to make plays.”
The Cardinals (1-1) are at Buffalo on Sunday.