Since raising the Grey Cup over his head, nothing has gone Willie Jefferson’s way in his professional football career.
After a career-year in his first season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the defensive end caught the eye of the NFL. Jefferson worked out for several teams after the Grey Cup run in 2019, but wasn’t able to secure a deal down south. Luckily, his fallback plan wasn’t so bad as he re-signed with the Blue Bombers on a two-year deal in February. But then, his fallback plan turned into no plan at all thanks to a global pandemic stopping the CFL from having a season in 2020. Now that the league is aiming to return to play in 2021, players with hefty salaries like Jefferson are being asked to renegotiate their deals at the risk of being handed their walking papers as teams are trying to cut costs. In Jefferson’s original contract, he was scheduled to receive a $150,000 bonus on Feb. 1.
So, considering how everything has shaked out since he was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player en route to helping the Bombers finally get over the hump, just how frustrated is Jefferson?
“To be totally honest, there’s no frustration. It’s just having to deal with life’s unexpected (moments),” Jefferson told reporters during a conference call on Tuesday from his home in Austin, Texas. It was announced Monday that Jefferson and the Bombers reworked his contract for the 2021 campaign.
“I’m fortunate to have a strong-minded family… so when things happened, there wasn’t really a frustration aspect for us. It was just moving on to the next thing and seeing what we could do to make it better for us… I had some time to sit back and reflect and spend some time with my familly — time that I really haven’t gotten to spend with the family in years.”
Jefferson becomes the second Bomber who was already under contract for 2021 to agree to a pay cut as starting quarterback Zach Collaros did so on the weekend. Next up could be linebacker Adam Bighill, who is set to receive a $50,000 bonus on Friday and again on April 15.
“Because everybody wants to come back,” said Jefferson when asked why he should accept less.
“This is something that needs to happen for the organization and the league to be comfortable making some of the moves that they need to make before the season starts and while the season is going on. Especially because everybody had to take a hit from not playing and not being able to do anything productive in 2020.”
Jefferson added: “With the restructure, it didn’t really take long, but the mindset of having to take a pay cut because of the salary cap and everything for the league, it brought upon questions and thoughts and things like that. But when it came down to it, seeing guys sign back to teams and restructure their contracts so teams could have money to make moves and let people know that the CFL wants to come back in 2021, it was really something that seemed like it had to be done.”
To say Jefferson dominated the CFL in 2019 would be an understatement. The 6-7, 248-pounder out of Stephen F. Austin posted a career-best 12 quarterback sacks, set a new CFL record for pass knockdowns by a defensive lineman with 16, while also leading the CFL with six forced fumbles and adding 24 tackles, an interception and two fumble recoveries. He saved arguably his best performance for last as he had three sacks and two forced fumbles in the Grey Cup victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Many assumed it would lead to Jefferson playing in the NFL this past season, including Jefferson, who was optimistic an impressive workout with the Miami Dolphins was going to lead to a contract, but nothing came to fruition.
“It’s looking like this is where I’m going to be,” said the 29-year old Jefferson.
“NFL teams aren’t looking for 30-plus-year-old players at any position. If you can find a place where you’re loved, adored and people know you can still put in good work and dominate, it makes no sense to leave to go to try to find something else that isn’t guaranteed.”
The Bombers originally had 32 pending free agents but they’ve chopped that list down to 20 names after recently re-signing several key pieces such as offensive linemen Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, and receiver Nic Demski. While taking a pay cut is never ideal, Jefferson said it’s not so bad as it appears the majority of the 2019 band will be back together.
“We are a close-knit group. You know, 2019 really brought us together. Closer than a lot of teams,” said Jefferson.
“To see how we came together and finished the season winning the Grey Cup, to have everybody want to come back and do that again the way we were supposed to in 2020, it really did make it easy.”
Bombers sign 2020 CFL Draft selections
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers signed four members of its 2020 CFL draft class in defensive back Noah Hallett, kicker Marc Liegghio, defensive lineman Nick Dheilly, and linebacker Tanner Cadwallader.
The biggest name on the list is Hallett, the team’s top draft pick who was chosen 18th overall. Hallett played three seasons at McMaster and had 15 pass breakups, seven interceptions, three sacks, and a forced fumble in 23 games. He’s also the brother of current Blue Bombers defensive back Nick Hallett, who made 13 special teams tackles in 2019.
The Bombers did not have a first round pick in the 2020 draft as it was dealt to the Toronto Argonauts in the Collaros trade.
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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