The CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player has all the traits NFL teams covet, but Willie Jefferson was not signed south of the border following an award-winning season in Canada.
Jefferson posted a career-high 12 sacks, forced six fumbles and knocked down a CFL single-season record 16 passes in 2019. He also added 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and one interception. That led to being named a CFL all-star for the third-straight season.
The 29-year-old Jefferson had a great workout in front of Miami’s staff in December. In fact, the Dolphins cut it short because Jefferson displayed everything the personnel men wanted to see. Patrick Graham was Miami’s defensive coordinator but left for the same job with the New York Giants after Jefferson visited the Dolphins. Josh Boyer was promoted to fill the roll in Miami.
“When I went and worked out with them it was one defensive coordinator and I guess a couple of weeks later they got a new defensive coordinator. I guess I didn’t fit his scheme. Those guys didn’t get in contact with me, so I just left it as it was,” Jefferson said.
“It’s not frustrating at all just because I knew I was always going to have somewhere to go. It was really just me wanting to go back down south and play ball at the highest level you can play, which is the NFL. If NFL teams don’t want to put me on the team, that’s their fault in the end.”
The six-foot-seven, 248-pounder signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013 with the Houston Texans where he played in six games, making two tackles. Buffalo had Jefferson in for a brief stint, though he was soon released. Following two standout years in Edmonton, Washington inked Jefferson to a futures contract in 2016 but cut him following training camp.
“NFL teams aren’t looking for 30-year-old defensive ends. That’s pretty much the same reason why they didn’t want to pick me up this year. I’m not getting any younger and the NFL is looking for younger guys to come into the league and help an organization,” Jefferson said.
“Guys that they can mould into NFL players, I’m not that guy, I’m already moulded. I’ve shown that I can play ball on the line, dropping back and if NFL teams want a younger guy they can do that, I’m 30 and I’m still playing football.”
New start-up leagues, the Alliance of American Football and the XFL never tempted Jefferson. The AAF folded prior to completing one season of play while the XFL kicked off the week following the Super Bowl.
“The AAF pretty much flopped, I’m not wishing that on the XFL. If it’s not the NFL, it’s the CFL for me. That’s what I’ve been preaching for a while. I’ve always told my friends that playing outside of the NFL, this is the next best thing to the NFL,” Jefferson said.
“The AAF was a good thing for a couple of guys, they got an NFL chance. I feel like the XFL will be a good thing for a couple of young guys that are trying to get back into the NFL. Also, get a chance to get some film if they want to get recruited from the CFL as well.”
From a CFL perspective, Jefferson was being offered more money from competing teams Toronto and Hamilton, but it wasn’t enough of a difference to pull him out of Winnipeg. He was a one-man wrecking crew in the 2019 CFL championship game. Jefferson recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles to help the Bombers upset the Ticats in the Grey Cup 33-12.
“It really wasn’t about the money, I felt like I was going to get paid what I deserved. It didn’t seem right to leave,” Jefferson said and stated it wasn’t important to be the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
“In the negotiation process I had with Winnipeg I could have been, but I chose not to because I always want to be a team player. I want the organization to build around me. I for sure don’t want to be the spotlight when it comes down to money differences.”
Jefferson inked a two-year deal in the Manitoba capital worth over $250,000 per season. The small town tie in Winnipeg brought the Jefferson’s back to their football home with an opportunity to build a long lasting legacy.