49ers roster 2021: Tony Jefferson a starting-caliber reserve

Strong Safety Tony Jefferson #23 of the Baltimore Ravens (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Strong Safety Tony Jefferson #23 of the Baltimore Ravens (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

The 49ers needed to reinforce their safety depth, and they’re hoping former starter Tony Jefferson can resurrect his career after missing all of 2020.

In a relatively quick succession of moves, the San Francisco 49ers signed former Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens starting safety Tony Jefferson to a one-year free-agent deal, likely in the wake of learning about one of their prime backups, defensive back Tarvarius Moore, suffering a torn Achilles during offseason workouts.

Not good from Moore’s vantage point. But at least it’s an opportunity for Jefferson to resurrect his career.

At 29 years old, Jefferson entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma in 2013 and emerged as a regular rotational starter the following year before joining Baltimore after four seasons out in Arizona.

Tony Jefferson Defense & Fumbles Table
4 yr4 yrARI633122612611635.0277225522012
3 yr3 yrBAL353522801511213.517412054137

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/25/2021.

Jefferson had the claim of being part of a budding Ravens secondary from 2017 through 2019, starting every game in which he was healthy before tearing his ACL early in 2019.

Baltimore released him the following February, and Jefferson remained a free agent throughout the entirety of the 2020 season.

With the Niners having some concerns about their own starting safeties’ health, namely Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, along with other questions about the depth in the wake of Moore’s injury, signing Jefferson made a lot of sense.

And there’s a good chance Jefferson winds up assuming a bigger role than just a reserve, too.

Why Tony Jefferson thrives with 49ers in 2021

By the end of 2018, Jefferson was looking like one of those players who’d be on the cusp of making a Pro Bowl any given season. After all, his Pro Football Focus overall grade that year was 72.4, split nicely between his coverage and run-defense grades, too.

Jefferson regressed slightly over his five games played in 2019, although his overall 53.1 PFF grade from that year looked more like an anomaly when comparing his better-than 70.0 marks between 2016 and 2018.

A little more adept at defending against the run than the pass over his career, Jefferson nevertheless has played well enough in coverage to warrant use in a two-high safety look, which became more prevalent in San Francisco’s defense the last two years.

If Jefferson winds up showcasing his all-around skills as he did in 2018, he’ll be well worth the investment.

Why Tony Jefferson regresses with 49ers in 2021

For starters, nearly two years is a long time to miss for any NFL player, especially a defensive back.

Jefferson first needs to prove he’s fully recovered from the 2019 ACL tear that cut out nearly two full seasons. On top of that, getting his proverbial “football legs” back underneath him could prove to be a challenge during training camp, too.

Yet it’s the underlying pass-coverage concerns that could ultimately be Jefferson’s undoing with the 49ers. Their reserves the last two seasons have also struggled in this department, and Jefferson would need to show he’s an upgrade over backup players like Marcell Harris, Talanoa Hufanga and Tavon Wilson, who are currently vying for a roster spot behind Tartt.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, projected impact

Jefferson is squarely on the roster bubble, yes. But it’s not hard to see why the Niners wanted to bring him aboard.

For starters, Tartt has landed on season-ending injured reserve in three of the last four seasons, and 2019 even saw him miss four games with a ribs injury. Those setbacks forced Harris into the fray, and the results weren’t overly impressive. Particularly in 2020 when Harris posted a 36.6 pass-coverage grade, per PFF.

Jefferson is likely ahead of Harris in the 53-man roster pecking order, which is fine. But Jefferson might also have to beat out Wilson, another offseason free-agent add with special teams versatility, and perhaps even the rookie, Hufanga, too.

All that said, none of San Francisco’s backup safeties have as much starting experience at Jefferson. Still on the right side of 30 years old, Jefferson could easily become the first player the 49ers call upon if Tartt winds up going down again with some sort of injury this season.

As long as Jefferson is healthy and recovered, there’s an excellent shot of him surviving roster cuts. He also might wind up starting a good deal of games this season, too, given Tartt’s injury reputation.

If that winds up being the case, the Niners will feel good they took a flier on the veteran.

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