You can take a deep breath, Blue Bombers fans: This is still Willie-Peg.
It was announced on Monday that Willie Jefferson, the reigning CFL most outstanding defensive player, isn't going anywhere. The six-foot-seven, 250-pound defensive end officially re-signed with the Blue Bombers on a two-year deal that will pay him $260,000 per season, including incentives. Jefferson, his wife Holly and their 22-month old daughter Kelley made the trip to Winnipeg this week to make the deal official. Jefferson spoke to the media Thursday morning at IG Field for the first time since putting pen to paper.
"This is a place where we plan to get comfortable. We have a good amount of friends, a good fan base, a good community around us and the organization took care of us last year. Moving forward, I'm pretty sure it will be the same way," Jefferson said. "I'm to the point now where I'm not really trying to bounce around. I'm trying to be in one spot for a while and me signing my two-year contract here pretty much shows that I'm willing to stay and help this organization grow bigger than what it already is."
Coming off of a monstrous season where he 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, many assumed the Austin, Tex., product would land an NFL deal.
"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 was 28 and just turned 29 at the end of January. Moving forward, I'm not getting any younger and that's pretty much what the NFL is looking for." – Willie Jefferson
It appeared that was going to come to fruition after Jefferson had a workout with the Miami Dolphins in December. But then a wrench was thrown into that plan when Dolphins defensive co-ordinator Patrick Graham left in January to take a job with the New York Jets and was replaced by Josh Boyer. After the coaching change, Jefferson never heard back from the Dolphins. Knowing he'd have no shortage of teams interested in his services north of the border, Jefferson said he wasn't frustrated that he didn't get a shot at the NFL. Six CFL teams ended up reaching out to him.
"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 was 28 and just turned 29 at the end of January. Moving forward, I'm not getting any younger and that's pretty much what the NFL is looking for," said Jefferson, who will enter his seventh CFL season after spending the first five between the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Roughriders.
"They're looking for younger guys to come into the league and help an organization. Guys they can mould into NFL players. I'm not that guy. I'm already moulded. I've been through a lot of things, I've shown I can play ball on the line, drop back and do things like that. If NFL teams want a younger guy, they can do that. I'm (almost) 30 and still playing football."
Once the NFL was out the window, all signs pointed towards a return to Winnipeg. After all, Jefferson spoke very highly of his year with the Bombers and made it almost sound like a guarantee he'd be back as long as he didn't get a shot down south. But Jefferson had the Bomber faithful sweating last weekend as he and his family were wined and dined by the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He admitted Toronto (who reportedly offered upwards of $290,000 per year) and Hamilton made it a tough decision, but seeing how many key pieces from last year's Grey Cup run were re-signing in Winnipeg sealed the deal for him.
"It wasn't really about the money situation. I felt like I was going to get paid what I deserve. Winnipeg made it kind of hard for me not to want to come back." – Willie Jefferson
"It wasn't really about the money situation. I felt like I was going to get paid what I deserve. Winnipeg made it kind of hard for me not to want to come back. Like I said, bringing back guys like Darvin (Adams), Stan (Bryant), Yosh (Jermarcus Hardrick), myself and then knowing I had Jackson (Jeffcoat) still being here, coach (Mike) O'Shea coming back as well, it didn't seem right to leave," he said.
Jefferson believes the pieces are in play to contend for another championship. In the 2019 title game, Jefferson owned Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback Dane Evans all night. Jefferson had three sacks and two forced fumbles to lead the Bombers to a 33-12 victory that ended a 28-year Grey Cup drought. Jefferson said he watches the game once a week and despite his big numbers, he believes his performance was only deserving of a B-plus.
So if that's a B-plus, what the heck would an A-plus look like?
"Well, you know, a couple of interceptions... If I could have scooped up (a fumble) and scored or caught an interception and scored, or got another forced fumble on a run play or a couple of tackles for losses, if I would have won MVP of the game, that probably would have made it an A-plus game for me. But we got the Grey Cup. That's all that mattered."
Former Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols, who signed with the Argos last week, was hoping he wouldn't have to be on the receiving end of an A-plus or even a B-plus outing by Jefferson as he called the defender to try to sway him to join him in Toronto. The pair were also teammates earlier in their career in Edmonton. Jefferson said the idea of teaming up again sounded good, but Winnipeg was where he wanted to be.
Jefferson was asked for his thoughts on how Winnipeg's quarterback situation played out with the Bombers opting to bring back Zach Collaros instead of Nichols.
"With the way Zach stepped in, finished out the season and playing his role, it was kind of hard not to bring him back. To have somebody like him in the locker room, somebody with his leadership and his knowledge of the game, with the receivers we have now, especially the young receivers having a guy like Zach to lead them, also with Darvin, him being a leader in the wide receiver locker room but having a guy like Zach talk to him and get him through some things, it'll be something fresh for the team. Matt's been here for a while. Not to say anything negative against him. He was hurt at the end of the season and he couldn't really get it done. Zach stepped in and got it done and that's the way we wanted to step forward, I guess."
As for Jefferson, he hopes he can continue to make plays for the Blue and Gold for a long time. Sticking around for at least another two years will give Jefferson a chance to become an all-time great in Bomberland.
"That I came in and did exactly what I was supposed to do," said Jefferson on the type of legacy he hopes to build here.
"I want to be a leader to this team, a leader in this community. And be a part of this organization. At the end of the day, that's all I want as my legacy. To be heard and to be known. If it's here in Winnipeg for however long it is, then that's fine with me."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.