NFL safety Tony Jefferson, who signed a four-year, $36 million free agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens this offseason, recalls his experience of going undrafted in the 2013 NFL Draft despite leaving Oklahoma early as a top-ranked prospect at the safety position. These are his words.
When you're young and in college and reading press clippings about how high you'll go in the NFL Draft, it's hard to turn an opportunity like that down. When I received my draft grade from the NFL's college advisory committee and they gave me a second-to-third round grade, I took it.
I signed with my agent the day after I told my coaches at Oklahoma that I was declaring for the Draft. Although I received a second-to-third round grade, my agent felt there was a glaring need for safeties in the Draft and that it was possible that I could sneak into the first round.
At the NFL Combine, I had 13 formal team interviews and informal meetings with pretty much every team. All of the feedback I received was positive, and that led me to believe that things were going to be looking good come April 27.
Before the Draft, my mom and sister wanted to have a party. I just wanted to have the family over, which was a great decision by me! I just wanted to have the family and friends over and go from there.
I wasn't expecting to go in the first round, so it wasn't too discouraging when my name wasn't called—even though there were some safeties that were drafted by teams that had shown interest in me. The second day came and safeties were flying off the board. The second and third rounds went by and my agent called me and said "I don't know what's going on, but be ready for your name to be called early in the fourth round."
It was tough for me to go to sleep that night. Mentally I was like "OK, so I fell into the fourth round. It's not that bad. I can make it up from here and do what I gotta do when I get there."
We get through the fourth round on the final day of the draft and nothing happens. I check with my agent and he doesn't know what's going on. He said he was going to get in contact with some coaches.
Fifth round goes by . . .
. . . By the time the sixth round came I didn't even want to get drafted.
That's when the calls starting coming in from teams saying they wanted me as a priority free agent.
Priority free agent?
I had no idea how undrafted free agency worked. I didn't have plans of being undrafted. I thought if you didn't get drafted you weren't playing.
In the seventh round I get a call from New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. He tells me he's begging his owner to draft me, but apparently they needed to draft a fullback. I'm like "a fullback?! Are fullbacks even used anymore?"
The draft ended and I didn't even want to talk to any teams. I was angry.
My agent picked my team for me. I just told him to tell me where to go, and he said Arizona was a good opportunity for me. I just told myself I'm going to beat out whoever is in front of me.
The problem with being undrafted is that you don't get many opportunities to prove yourself in training camp. The guys who get drafted get more reps. When you're on the roster as an undrafted free agent, you're pretty much a training camp body until you prove yourself. When you're out there you have to make the most of it, and I did just that.
I was making plays all over the field in camp. I was on the scout team and picking off our starting quarterback, but I was still third on the depth chart entering the preseason.
I got to play in the fourth quarter of the first preseason game against Green Bay. I had a couple tackles.
During the second week of preseason there was an injury during practice and I moved up to second on the depth chart. I came in during the second quarter and had an interception on the second drive I was in. Later in the game I had another interception, so I had a two-interception game!
Then the next game I didn't play one snap on defense. I don't know if that was because they were trying to hide me to keep me on the practice squad, but I didn't get to play in that third game at all.
I was upset, but our defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said, "don't worry, you'll be all right."
We go into the fourth preseason game against Denver. I'm still mad because I hadn't played defense since I had the two-interception game. I get into the game in the fourth quarter and on the very first play I make a tackle for loss. A few plays later I get a fumble recovery, and then I get a sack to seal the game.
The final roster cuts are made the next day. I go into the facility that next day and I see that the safety listed ahead of me on the depth chart, his name had been removed from his locker stall. When I saw that I knew I had made the team.
The challenge for me, coming from the Big 12, was that our team didn't run an NFL-style defense. I wasn't really prepared for all that was coming at me. I struggled my first year with the playbook and the terminology.
Still, I played in all 16 games my rookie year and went on to start 15 games over the next two seasons. After three seasons I was starting to make a name for myself, but I wanted to be a more valuable asset to my team and earn more recognition around the league.
I committed myself last offseason to getting in better shape and cutting down on mental mistakes. I trained my butt off and lost a ton weight. When I came out of college I weighed 215 pounds; entering training camp last year I was down to 202 pounds. I had lost 7.8 percent body fat. I was moving a lot better, I was faster, I wasn't getting fatigued, and my six-pack was back!
A lot went into that offseason training and it built my mental toughness. I think it really helped me out last season, especially having a lot more energy in the fourth quarter. I was a more focused player.
You may be wondering why I didn't get drafted.
My best guess would be the result of me pulling my hamstring at the Combine and running a 4.75 in the 40-Yard Dash. Teams wanted me to re-run the 40 at my Pro Day, but I couldn't because I was still recovering from the injury.
I don't know if was part of the reason, but there were also reports that I didn't work hard and was a bad practice player. I don't know where that came from, but there were rumors that my college coaches were bashing me. There was all this speculation, but the truth is that I don't know the real reason why I went undrafted.
The question has been asked if I ever regretted leaving school early for the NFL. The answer? Yes, I did initially when I didn't get drafted . . . but now? Not a chance.
The experience of going undrafted made me a better person and a stronger person. It taught me to trust the process regardless of what it looks like. Being patient and trusting the process has allowed me to have a successful career so far, and I'm only looking to get better.
My plan has already been written. I just need to finish it off.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock