49ers safety Tony Jefferson eager to prove himself once again after long layoff

Tony Jefferson is eager to make his presence felt in the NFL once again.

The former Ravens safety hasn't suited up since tearing his ACL in Oct. 2019 and remained unsigned through 2020 while in recovery. The unfortunate injury halted his inspiring career as an undrafted free agent turned starting strong safety who was nearing Pro Bowl status. The 49ers came calling in June, signing Jefferson to a one-year deal and giving the seven-year veteran a chance to prove himself all over again.

Joining NFL Network's MJ Acosta and DeAngelo Hall on NFL Total Access Tuesday, Jefferson explained how his time away from the game has refueled his drive to go out and prove himself on a team set up for success.

"Sitting out a year, you just completely miss everything," Jefferson said. "You just want to put your hand in the pile at this point. For me, being undrafted, it's like starting all over again and just going out there and proving yourself and making a name. Cause, you know, you sit out a year, a lot of people forget. Forget who you are, forget what you've done, and it's time for me to remind people."

The 49ers are looking to rebound from an injury-marred season and return to the dominant form that catapulted them into Super Bowl LIV. Entering 2021, however, they will have to do it under new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans after Robert Saleh was hired as the New York Jets head coach. Ryans, a 10-year veteran linebacker and former All-Pro, began his coaching career in San Francisco under Saleh in 2017 just one year removed from his retirement as a player. Jefferson believes Ryans is well-equipped to pick up where Saleh left off.

"I had the opportunity to talk to him, I had been in contact with the 49ers for a little while," Jefferson said of Ryans, who was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006. "Just looking at (Ryans), he looks like we're the same age but you could tell he has the aggressive mindset. Like you said, he's All-Pro, he's been playing, so he knows exactly what he wants out of the defense and he knows what scheme he wants to run. He wants to be aggressive. Once you hear a defensive coordinator speak about being aggressive, all that does is shine lights in the head right there."

Jefferson joins a deep secondary that also had its fair share of injuries in 2020. Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt missed the final nine games with a turf toe injury and free safety Jimmie Ward dealt with several ailments during a rough campaign. Cornerbacks K'Wuan Williams, Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley and Dontae Johnson all missed some time last year, but the unit is outfitted to make up for Richard Sherman's absence entering 2021.

Considering the Niners' secondary depth, Jefferson will certainly need to fight for a roster spot coming off such a long layoff. Whether or not he makes the team as a starter or a starting-caliber backup remains to be seen, but the 29-year-old sees plenty of opportunity for the unit to make plays in the pass-happy NFC West.

"As a secondary player, you look at the NFC West you see the quarterbacks," Jefferson explained. "I love Matthew Stafford and have got to play against him a few times throughout my career, and then Kyler Murray and, of course, Russell Wilson, you know the ball is going to be in the air and with the ball is in the air that means more opportunities. I think with the front we have and the scheme we've got, I think it's gonna give us ample opportunity to go make the plays. The ball is in the air - got get it, it's ours."

San Francisco's defense remained stingy despite last season's injuries, allowing just 314.4 yards per game (5th best in NFL). A ball-hawking secondary is welcomed, however, as their ability to make plays was lacking with just 12 total interceptions and a -11 turnover ratio (second-worst in NFL). With Nick Bosa approaching a healthy return, Javon Kinlaw entering Year 2 and the exciting duo of Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner holding the fort, the 49ers are destined to come back strong.

By virtue of an established 49ers defense, Jefferson is looking to take advantage of a great situation. And the motivation behind his long-awaited return knows no bounds.

"They got some dogs up front," said Jefferson. "Any time you check out that roster and you look at the defensive depth chart and what they've done defensively up front - that's where it starts, in the trenches. They got some dogs up there. Linebackers, you know, (Dre) Greenlaw, Fred Warner, all types of guys that are just sideline-to-sideline guys who make plays.

"I'm excited to just to be able to put my hand in the pile, work my tail off and prove myself. Like I said, taking a year off for a guy who's been playing since four years old, words can't really express how excited I am for this opportunity."

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