While the Philadelphia Eagles should avoid adding an aging stop-gap in free agency this time around, Tony Jefferson may be the exception to that rule due to his transcendent fit in the big nickel package.
With certified ironmen locked in at free and strong safety – if you want to still call them that in this modern era of position flexibility – you’d think the Eagles’ reserves wouldn’t have earned much action, but interestingly enough, that wasn’t the case.
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Between Andrew Sendejo, Marcus Epps, Rudy Ford, and Johnathan Cyprien, Jim Schwartz played a third safety on 364 snaps over 16 regular-season games – good for about 36 percent of the team’s defensive snaps or 22.75 snaps a game.
And if we’re being honest, that number would probably be a whole lot higher had Sendejo not been waived in between Weeks 9 and 10, as he personally averaged over 26 snaps a game.
So while the Eagles very much have to make a decision at free safety going into 2020, whether that be re-signing McLeod, spending big on a player like Anthony Harris, or signing a high-upside prospect like Damarious Randall, the team should also keep an eye out for an in-the-box hitter equally comfortable with dropping into coverage and playing the run as a mini-linebacker.
Fortunately, the perfect player for the job just became available: Tony Jefferson II.
Measuring in at 5-foot-11, 211 pounds, Jefferson is a certified hitter dating all the way back to his college days at Oklahoma, where he won the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year award for 14 shining performances at the Sooners’ ‘star‘ position – a hybrid safety/linebacker role. He may not be the fastest (4.75 40), strongest (16 reps), or biggest player in the league, but the 28-year-old plays with a ton of heart, and after going undrafted out of OU despite receiving a Day 2 grade, he worked his way up from a part-timer, to Arizona Cardinals starter, to the owner of a four-year, $34 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens.
However, this potential 2020 cap hit ($11.66 million), when coupled with a Week 5 ACL injury prematurely ended Jefferson’s tenure in the Charm City; putting the 28-year-old rehabee on the open market for the first time since 2016.
Talk about a perfect storm of opportunity for Howie Roseman and company.
First and foremost, there’s the age factor. In 2019, the average age of the Eagles’ free agent class was 30.36. In 2020, I firmly believe the Eagles shouldn’t sign an external player older than 30 period.
I know, I know, that’s sort of a loaded statement, but as a general rule, it holds up.
Think about it, which free agent signee would you actually want back in 2020? Sendejo? Zach Brown? Orlando Scandrick? L.J. Fort maybe, but he didn’t even make it to Week 5 and didn’t start to make a defensive impact until he joined the Baltimore Ravens.
Of the 11 players signed as free agents in 2019, only three, Josh McCown, Vinny Curry, and Richard Rodgers were still on the active roster in Week 17. Sendejo? Cut. Johnathan Cyprien? Traded to the Falcons for Duke Riley. Heck, Jordan Matthews, Jay Ajayi, and Akeem Spence combined for 11 games with the team total, not individually.
How is that even possible?
By contrast, Jefferson won’t turn 29 until January of 2021, presumably when the Eagles will be in the Super Bowl (one can dream).
Jefferson is also coming off of an injury, and likely won’t have a massive market for his services due to his questionable status for Week 1, size (again), and questionable fit in most defensive schemes that rely on the typical free/strong safety dynamic, or prefer a pair of interchangeable converted cornerbacks like the Eagles. In a lot of ways, Jefferson is the best possible version of Sendejo or Cyprien, and could expand upon their combined role in 2019 to cultivate a new-look, ultra-modern big nickel base defense.
But wait, there’s even more.
Not only is Jefferson the right age, an undervalued asset on a market where everyone has money to spend, and by all accounts a fantastic leader both on and off the field, but because Jefferson was waived by the Ravens, signing him to a new contract won’t count against the Eagles’ compensatory draft picks.
My goodness, Howie Roseman just shed a tear.
Look, I could be wrong. Jefferson could be a quick healer and convince some team to sign him to another four-year deal worth north of $40 million, but I just don’t see it. He’s too old, he’s too slow, he’s too scheme-inflexible, and he’s too shor- you get the picture. But in the right scheme, he can also be really, really good. In the right locker room, he could help to reinforce a team’s culture. And for the right price, there really isn’t a reason why the Philadelphia Eagles shouldn’t sign Tony Jefferson to a one-year contract to serve as the team’s do-it-all hybrid safety/linebacker.