Mar 05, 2015

Shut Out in NFL Draft, Former Longhorn Finally Makes His Play

Dallas Cowboys running back Joseph Randle (21) tackles Washington Redskins defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat (53) after Jeffcoat caught an interception from quarterback Tony Romo (9) in the fourth quarter during the National Football League regular season finale game between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland Sunday December 28, 2014. Photo by Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News

Washington Redskins defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat (53) in action against Dallas Cowboys in Landover, Maryland. Cowboys were among the teams that overlooked Jeffcoat in last May’s NFL draft. Photo by Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News

By Peter Sblendorio
For Reporting Texas

Nearly a year later, Jackson Jeffcoat still can’t believe it. It seemed inconceivable to him that a player so talented, so accomplished, would be passed over by every NFL team, time after time, over the course of three long, disheartening days.

But that’s exactly what happened.

Jeffcoat, 23, had every reason to expect he would be selected in last May’s NFL draft and become one of the 1.6 percent of college football seniors chosen annually. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end had heard for years that he was destined for pro football, going back to his time at Plano West High School in Dallas, where he graduated in 2010 as the nation’s top defensive recruit, according to ESPN.

Then, in a monster of a four-year career with the Texas Longhorns, he posted 27.5 career sacks (seventh-most in school history) and 60 tackles for a loss (second-most). He especially dominated as a senior in 2013: his 13 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss led the conference, and he was named the Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

Scouts told Jeffcoat that he projected as a third-round or fourth-round pick. Fifth-round at the latest.

But then came draft weekend. The third and fourth rounds passed. Then so did the fifth.

“It’s fifth round, and no one’s calling me, nothing,” Jeffcoat said. “Then the sixth round comes around and people start saying, ‘We’re not calling to draft you. We’re just saying if you don’t get drafted.’ ”

“I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy,’ ” Jeffcoat said. “They’re calling me, saying ‘If you don’t get drafted,’ like that’s a possibility. It was wild to me.”

By the time the seventh and final round ended, there had been 256 players taken — none named Jackson Jeffcoat.

It was only the second time in the 18-year history of the Big 12 that a Defensive Player of the Year went undrafted. It was also the first time since 1937 that no Texas player was selected. Of all the Longhorns players who were passed over, Jeffcoat was the most surprising.

“It hurt, because all that work I put in, all that work I did to be special, it felt like it didn’t pay off,” Jeffcoat said in a recent interview in Austin. “I’m not going to lie, I was very surprised. Very surprised and very angry.”

Dane Brugler, a full-time draft analyst for NFLDraftScout and CBS Sports, saw Jeffcoat as a fifth- or sixth-round pick.

“He doesn’t have special traits, but I thought the bloodlines (Jeffcoat’s father played in the NFL) and motivated attitude would have given him a boost, especially once coaches got involved in the process,” Brugler said in a recent interview via email. “It reinforces that each prospect needs to be evaluated individually and no college honor will get you drafted.”

While every team passed him over repeatedly, one stood out: the Dallas Cowboys. Beyond the fact they are his hometown team, they were coming off a season in which they surrendered 6,645 yards — the most in franchise history. Dallas entered the draft desperate for defense.

“They didn’t even give me the time of day,” Jeffcoat said.

The Cowboys used all five of their final round selections on defensive players, none of them as decorated as Jeffcoat. Rick Gosselin, sports columnist for The Dallas Morning News, called it “puzzling.”

Jeffcoat’s father, Jim, played 12 years as a defensive end for the Cowboys and earned two Super Bowl rings. He was defensive line coach from 1998 through 2005.

“That definitely hurt,” Jackson Jeffcoat said. “The team that my dad played for, a team that supposedly respected him, for them to say that I wasn’t an elite pass rusher, it was a blow. I grew up being a Cowboys fan. And for them to not even sniff at me?”

Jim Jeffcoat said the Cowboys never attempted to speak to him about his son before the draft.

“They had their priorities, and he wasn’t one of their priorities,” Jim Jeffcoat said. “It was definitely disappointing.”

Jon Machota, who covers the Cowboys for the Morning News, said in an email, “The Cowboys didn’t see Jackson Jeffcoat as a fit for their 4-3 defense because they thought he was a ‘tweener.’ Players are usually put in that category because they aren’t quick enough to play outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and undersized to be a defensive end.”

Seattle brought Jeffcoat into camp last summer. As the preseason progressed, the Seahawks tried him at strongside linebacker, a position he never had played. He struggled, and the Seahawks cut him two weeks later.

Jeffcoat signed with the Washington Redskins a week later and began the season on the practice squad. He debuted on the active roster on Oct. 19 against Tennessee, only seeing the field on special teams. He then returned to the practice squad, where he remained until the second-to-last game of the season on Dec. 20. He made his debut on defense that day against the Philadelphia Eagles and recorded a sack and two tackles. For the next week’s season finale, he earned his first career start — against the Dallas Cowboys.

With 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter and Dallas ahead 27-10, the Cowboys lined up at their 25-yard line. Jeffcoat dropped into coverage against running back Joseph Randle. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo looked deep. There was nothing there. Redskins defensive end Ryan Kerrigan drove Romo back to the 8-yard line. Romo reversed field, began to run to his left and threw an off-balance lob toward Randle, about 15 yards away. Jeffcoat stepped in front at the 24-yard line, intercepted the pass and returned the ball to the Dallas 16.

The Cowboys wound up romping, 44-17.

Jeffcoat has two years remaining on his rookie contract with Washington, and he hopes to continue making plays for the Redskins for far longer. For now, he has the memory of his first career interception.

He picked off the team that didn’t pick him.

“It felt great,” Jeffcoat said. “Not just because it was against the Cowboys, but because it was just showing people, ‘Hey, I can go out here and make plays. I was a playmaker in college, and I’ll do it again in the NFL.’ ”