It's quite possible that star defensive lineman Calais Campbell would have ended up on the Baltimore Ravens, anyway, had he not reached out to a former teammate as part of his diligent research on where he'd like to play in 2020. But the Ravens brass should probably send a thank you card to recently-released safety Tony Jefferson, anyway. And maybe even consider him for an eventual playoff share should they win the AFC North again.
Jefferson, now a free agent who is working hard to recover from a season-ending knee injury, was something of a closer in the transaction that would ultimately send Campbell to the Ravens for a fifth-round pick. It's a move Ravens coaches and execs believe could be transformational for a defensive line that got steamrolled by the Titans in the playoffs, and a change that has rejuvenated and energized the 33-year-old veteran. Campbell and Jefferson were teammates in Arizona early in their careers, and remained friends, so when Campbell and his agent were trying to sort through four trade options once the Jaguars made it clear he was getting dealt, Jefferson was one of the first phone calls he made.
"It sold me a whole lot," Campbell told me when I interviewed him Friday on my radio show, Inside Access on 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore.
How can the Ravens and all the AFC North teams improve through the draft? The Pick Six Podcast crew tackles that question and more on Mock Draft Monday; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
Campbell, who has earned All-Pro status five times, including last season, and has earned that recognition at both defensive end and tackle, knew by the Friday before the start of the league year earlier this month that he would be leaving Jacksonville as part of its salary cap purge. And it was clear, with just one year remaining on his contract, that a new deal was going to be necessary to facilitate the trade. The Jaguars wanted to complete the process by that Sunday (March 15), leaving the perennial Pro Bowler with precious little time to weigh his options. Safe to say, after talking to Jefferson, there was a prohibitive favorite in the process (and the strong relationship between Ravens wunderkind GM Eric DeCosta and Jags GM Dave Caldwell probably didn't hurt, either).
"On Saturday I decided to do some research," Campbell told me, "and I decided to call Tony, because I knew he would have good insight, and I have a really good relationship with him. And the way he spoke about (this opportunity), especially for a guy who just got cut – because usually when a guy just got cut they're a little upset and they don't speak highly of the team – but Tony had nothing but good things to say.
"He really led me to believe that the culture there is very, very strong. He was a big influence on me. Obviously, I did my own research and I have my own history with some of the people there, but at the end of the day I value Tony's opinion very highly, and he did a really good job selling me."
Jefferson, 28, loved his three seasons in Baltimore, with his acquisition one of the first major free agent moves spearheaded by DeCosta as he was transitioning to eventually replacing legendary GM Ozzie Newsome. Jefferson was a huge proponent of John Harbaugh and his coaching staff. He understood the realities at play for his future -- youngster Chuck Clark thrived as the starting strong safety the final 12 games (including playoffs) that Jefferson missed in 2019 and earned a contract extension. Which meant, inevitably, that Jefferson was not going to see his $9M salary and was going to be seeking a new team this spring.
Yet his enthusiasm for a Ravens/Campbell marriage was overwhelming. He could see his buddy getting a Lombardi in Baltimore. He wanted it for team and player.
"Oh my gosh, it's the absolute perfect fit," Jefferson had told us on Inside Access the previous week after the trade was announced. "I had talked to him the day before it happened. I guess when he was hearing it might go down, and I was ecstatic for him. I was so happy for him, because I know the type of player he is, not just on the field, but what he brings to the locker room.
"He is going to fit right in. This organization is going to love him. He's just a loving guy who cares and works hard, and he's just a beast on the field. He's 6-8 and has an unbelievable swim move that he uses and I just think that (defensive coordinator) Wink (Martindale) saw him at the Pro Bowl and was like, 'We need this guy. He is definitely going to be a huge factor in our defense and how our guys play inside upfront.' That was a very good get by EDC (Eric DeCosta) there."
Jefferson is making significant headway in his recovery from the knee injury, changing to a vegan diet for 30 days and getting closer to being able to pass a physical. He could be one of the steals of the latest waves of free agency and was beloved by teammates and coaches in Baltimore, but the Ravens secondary may be the deepest in the NFL, leaving Jefferson to find a new employer. It is, unfortunately, part of the business.
"When I spoke to (owner) Steve (Bisciotti) and when I spoke to Eric and John, I have nothing no ill will, nothing negative to say about the organization," Jefferson told us (full recordings of the interviews can be found here). "I think they are run the right way and that comes from the top starting with Steve all the way down. And I felt like it was a place I wish I could've been when I first came into the league, but think I came in at the right time to help build a great organization and help turn things around on defense and have the younger guys like Chuck come up.
"And when it was his time he was ready, and that's a testament to the older guys, not just me, but all the other guys I shared that locker room with, how close knit everybody was together. I'm going really miss that a lot, just the brotherhood all together, and the city all together. Like I told Eric, when I'm done playing hopefully I'm able to get in there and do some scouting."
I dare say Jefferson has already earned that right. The Campbell trade could end up being one of the most impactful of this entire NFL offseason, and Jefferson more than did his old team a solid in swaying the pendulum in favor of the Ravens. His scouting report of his former teammate was right on point, and he may not be done helping out the Ravens organization in more ways off the field when his playing days are over.
"Most definitely, that's always been my goal," Jefferson said when I pushed him about really wanting to work in scouting for Baltimore one day. "I'm not too into much other stuff besides football in my life. I'm just going to be that kind of guy like the old ball coach when it comes to work for me. In the long run I don't see myself doing anything outside of football."
He's already got an assist on his first trade before he knows who his next team will be. Not bad.