Safety Tony Jefferson discusses a play with defensive backs coach Nick Rapone at a training camp practice.
When Tony Jefferson was about 7, he played on a youth basketball team that wore purple and was called the Suns – the NBA team of Arizona, a state away from his native California.
That was it. He grew into a huge Suns fan, particularly Steve Nash, as he turned into a football star who received a scholarship to Oklahoma University. When he went pro and ended up with the Cardinals, one of the first things he did was get floor seats to U.S. Airways Center to be up close and personal to his favorite team.
"It was a dream come true," Jefferson said.
He wouldn't describe his rookie season quite the same. He came out of Oklahoma as a junior, thinking he'd be drafted. He
was not. He was admittedly bitter about the situation as he arrived in Arizona. He made the roster, but to draw a straight line from then until now – when he has emerged as the starting strong safety while first-round draft pick Deone Bucannon learns the game – skips over how Jefferson got here.
"I've had more talks with him personally than most people because we were both rookies and in the same secondary," fellow safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "Last year was more about him and how things didn't go his way. This year he has a different outlook.
"He wants to win and just wants to contribute and I don't think he cares if it's special teams or a nickel package or dime package or as the starter."
Jefferson has shown that. Before the draft – before Bucannon was the first-round pick – Jefferson said he thought the Cardinals needed to draft a safety, knowing a high choice would endanger playing time or even a roster spot. It's hard to see him saying the same if it had been last season.
He is about to become a father for the first time, which he said plays a role in his change. He is more comfortable in the locker room and he is most certainly more comfortable in the defense. He has had no problem giving Bucannon tips and pointers throughout the offseason work, again knowing it will likely later cost him the starting spot.
He had to learn how to be a professional.
"It's like night and day from last year," Jefferson said. "Everywhere I needed to start acting like a pro. I think everything is coming together for me. I can feel it, becoming a man."
Even little things like daily trips to the cold tub and treatment – things he avoided much of the time last season – are part of his regiment.
"He matured a lot," Mathieu said. "It's hard to mature. People underplay it but if you aren't mature it's very hard to find
that maturity. Last year he used to laugh a lot at practice and joke around and obviously he was disappointed in not being drafted but this year I think all those things left his mind. He is focusing on doing what needs to be done on defense."
That means starting right now. Arians has said multiple times when asked about Bucannon that Jefferson isn't simply going to give up the starting job. He's actually, with Mathieu, become one of the first pieces of the Cardinals' overhauled safety position.
When Arians arrived, Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes were the incumbent starters. Both were released as Arians and General Manager Steve Keim wanted to be younger at the position.
"Great players hit a certain level and they can't cover the ground they used to," Arians said. "We wanted to be faster and more physical. It's hard to get more physical than Adrian was in his prime, but that's the type of player you are looking for."
Jefferson isn't huge (5-foot-11) but he can hit. It was a slower 40 time (4.64) coming out that likely cost Jefferson a draft spot, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said Jefferson is smart, instinctive and doesn't get enough credit for his athleticism.
That Jefferson got hung up on his undrafted status causes Bowles to chuckle – "Tony is a drama guy," Bowles said – but that it will serve him well.
"It seems like no one wants you but that's the nature of the business," said Bowles, himself a one-time undrafted NFL safety. "I had to go through the same thing myself. Tony has adapted well."
Maturation is relative, of course. His non-drafted status isn't derailing him on the field anymore, but that's not to say he's altogether forgotten about it or the chip it left on his shoulder.
"It's under my jacket," Jefferson said, motioning to his shoulder. "You can't see it, but it's still there."
Images from training camp on Wednesday, August 6th