MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 09: Clark Haggans #53 of the Arizona Cardinals congratulates A.J. Jefferson #20 on breaking up a pass by the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter on October 9, 2011 at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
A.J. Jefferson has always had to overcome adversity, much like the team he plays for.
Ever since the beginning of his NFL career, A.J. Jefferson has been an underrated player. After becoming a cornerback late in his college career, many teams didn't feel that he had the necessary skills to transfer over into the NFL and become a legitimate player.
So when Jefferson went undrafted out of Fresno State, he took it personally. He signed with the Arizona Cardinals and played in his first game during the 2010 season. His athleticism and keen ability to read quarterbacks after having played wide receiver earlier in his career made him a great fit for the Cardinals, who are seemingly always lacking depth at cornerback.
When Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was traded to get Kevin Kolb and Greg Toler went down with a torn ACL, Jefferson got his shot to make an impact. Many were surprised to see him as one of the first team players at training camp prior to the 2011 season. As for Jefferson, he wasn't surprised. That has always been his goal.
Now, the Cardinals have players coming back from injury and new blood coming into the ranks. That has forced Jefferson way down the depth chart. He did not appear in any of the dime packages during practice. It will just have to be another obstacle that he will be forced to overcome.
"Those kind of things [being demoted] I take personal," Jefferson told me. "I take a lot of pride in where I came from and how I got here. Going through that just kind of puts it in perspective."
There's no doubting that Jefferson can still earn back his role with the team. Coach ken Whisenhunt has always stressed that the best players will play. If Jefferson can show that he's the best, he will work his way back into the rotation. Still, he recognizes the talent ahead of him and knows it will take plenty of work to climb back up a mountain he has already trekked.
"There's always somebody else on your heels that can play," Jefferson said. "It's about working hard everyday and proving it to your coaches that you can play."
It's never been a question of ability with Jefferson, either. He has all the physical tools to be a great cover corner. His lean frame, long arms and quick feet make him the prime candidate to cover great receivers. For A.J., it's about taking a better mental approach to the game.
"It's been more of a mental thing for me this year. I think they know that I've got all the physical tools to play and everything. It's all there. I've just got to get the mental part down and get on this playbook. It's not the easiest playbook to learn, but we've come together as a defense... when all the pieces fall in place, we'll be good."
Much like A.J., many are already discounting the Cardinals and what they will be able to accomplish in 2012. The quarterback position is still up for grabs between the aforementioned Kolb and John Skelton and there are some injuries to key players that may not give the team a good outlook. Still, Jefferson thinks that the Cards will surprise some people.
"I expect us to do big things. I expect us to win a lot of games and I expect us to go to the playoffs. We've got high expectations for ourselves and Coach has put a lot of expectations on us. We've put that goal that we want to try and be great, so that's what we're going to do."
It seems to me that the Cardinals are as perfect a fit for Jefferson now as they were when he signed with Arizona. Together, they will hope to accomplish their goal of proving all the doubters wrong and reentering a realm of success.