Cornerback A.J. Jefferson (20) breaks up a pass to Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey during the Cardinals' win in Oakland Thursday night.
Hidden in the whirlwind of free-agent additions, the trade of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the delay of newly signed players to the practice field, cornerback A.J. Jefferson was running with the first unit.
Some of it was circumstance. Given the absence of an offseason, coach Ken Whisenhunt clearly wanted to leave returning players higher on the depth chart while everyone got comfortable with the system. With the departure of DRC, veteran Richard Marshall was signed, and rookie Patrick Peterson was the No. 1 draft choice, but both are backups for now. Greg Toler, who started last season, remains first-string.
Some of it was because of Jefferson, and his potential.
The Cardinals have liked the undrafted free agent since picking him up in April of 2010, even though he played in just two games while spending the bulk of the season on the practice squad. Then Jefferson showed some of his skills in Thursday night's preseason opener in Oakland, breaking up three passes in his first chance to start.
"There is always the opportunity for things to change," Jefferson said. "I am just trying to do my job. They brought in guys left and right, so I want to do my best and get it on film. As long as I am still here, I am happy."
Jefferson, 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, has the physical tools and impressed at the 2010 Scouting Combine with his speed and leaping ability. An explosive return man at Fresno State, he remains unsure why he went undrafted and took to Twitter recently to refute issues like not having an interception in college ("Teams never threw at me," he wrote).
As with any player, however, college only matters when trying to get on the roster. Once there, it's about what is done on the NFL level, and the Cards like what they have seen thus far.
"He's fighting for a shot to play," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We're going to rotate all those guys in preseason and they will have opportunities against groups we are facing. I can tell you this, A.J. responded (in Oakland). If he can establish consistency and work every day in practice, he's got a chance to play a lot."
Eventually, Peterson will find his way into the starting lineup. Marshall has been a starter most of his career in Carolina. Toler has made strides. Jefferson will have a fight just to break into that rotation, and that doesn't include veteran Michael Adams, who has played well on special teams and is best suited as a dime defensive back.
That's why Jefferson's performance in Oakland was so important. He broke up a couple of deep passes, and showed the proper "forgetfulness" of a cornerback when, a play after getting beat on a 26-yard pass to wideout Denarius Moore, Jefferson broke up a pass to receiver Chaz Schilens.
"I guess they were testing me, I don't know," Jefferson said. "I've got enough confidence to compete every play.
"Just them putting me out there, it's a blessing they put that responsibility out there, especially where I came from last year."
The Cardinals have carried five safeties in the past with four cornerbacks, but that may be flipped this year, depending on what they want to do with Adams and, more importantly, what they see in Jefferson.
"Last year I was just watching," Jefferson said. "I'm just trying to make it work."