It wasn’t long ago that Antoine Winfield was establishing himself as one of the more interesting chess pieces for the Buffalo Bills and the Minnesota Vikings over a rock solid fourteen NFL seasons that included three pro bowl berths.
During that time, Winfield managed to collect 27 interceptions while breaking up 117 passes. And while those types of numbers are nice numbers to hang your hat on, Winfield is nowhere near encapsulated by pass breakups or plays on the football.
He did the majority of his work during the early parts of his career on the perimeter at a traditional cornerback alignment. It was the ladder stages of his career that had begun to revolutionize the value NFL teams put into their various secondary spots.
Winfield was an early introduction into the skill set needed for the nickel cornerback position, hanging his hat on versatility in both the pass and run game. It was his ability as a tackler, his feel in zone coverage, his ability to stay in phase man to man, and his ability as a blitzer that defined his overall legacy as a football player.
Had Winfield begun his career just a few seasons later, the new value of the nickel-dime-slot defender would have magnified his legacy as a pioneer for a position that has continued to gain more and more value.
Fast forward to the 2019 college football season, a versatile defensive back of the same name is quickly asserting himself into a similar, yet different, mold of his famous father.
University of Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. has endured a roller coaster career thus far for the Golden Gophers.
Originally coming to the team as modest three star recruit (according to ESPN, Scout and 247Sports), Winfield Jr. quickly asserted himself as a player whose talent far exceeded his recruiting profile. In 2016 as a true freshman, Winfield became a nine game starter for the Golden Gophers while becoming a playmaker at the cornerback position.
He would finish that season with 52 tackles, 3 pass breakups and an interception that he would return 82 yards for a touchdown. Clearly a lot was expected of Winfield moving forward.
Unfortunately injuries would derail each of the next two seasons for Winfield, allowing for him to suit up for just eight contests, 4 each in both 2017 and 2018. Even through those injuries, Winfield would demonstrate the talent that has made him arguably the best player on the field when he has been able to suit up.
The now redshirt sophomore defensive back was granted multiple years of eligibility by the NCAA due to his time missed. In reality, Winfield Jr. now sits as a fourth year sophomore.
That time, despite the loss of direct experience, has translated big time to Winfield’s game in 2019. That wisdom has done wonders for Winfield at a brand new position.
After seeing the majority of his time in the previous three years on the perimeter and as a nickel-slot defenders, the 5’10” 205 pounder has been taking the majority of his snaps inside at a traditional safety alignment. An interesting switch for the talented playmaker, Winfield Jr. has provided a bunch of splash plays this season, raising the question just how he might fit into the NFL Draft evaluation process moving forward.
Johnny on the Spot
Since the inception of American football, turnover margin has been amongst the most important factors when determining the outcome of a football game. This fact has made the need for playmakers on the defensive side of the ball a vital aspect when constructing a team.
Some players create these turnovers due to their physical dominance, being able to match a player one on one and win in the proper moments.
Other players win with their minds. They specialize in disciplinary actions to remain in the proper phase and get to the correct spot. That in essence is zone coverage.
For a player like Antoine Winfield Jr., his ability to establish good habits in zone coverage despite his history of playing out on the island, is what took me off guard. Especially in a position in the middle of the field, where the margin for error becomes increasingly smaller.
Even so, Winfield has made a seamless transition to the safety position. So much so that Winfield currently ranks tied for second in the nation with five interceptions.
What is encouraging is how those interceptions have been recorded. We have seen some splash plays by consistently being in the proper spot and depth.
We have not seen a ton of instances of Winfield being tasked in man to man coverage, winning instead with leverage. With his background at cornerback, however, there is no reason to believe that that element can not be apart of his arsenal moving forward.
Ball skills sell, and boy does he have some.
Mr. Single High
While there will always be a role your traditional strong safety types who makes their living playing short zones while filling in as an extra run box defender, versatile safeties who have the ability to play deep zones in various ways rule the world.
Your traditional cover 2 (zone or man) is always nice. Having a player who can play hash to sideline is a nice place to start. That can allow a whole lot of reassurance for the cornerbacks and linebackers playing underneath.
Finding a safety who can play single high, now that is another conversation entirely.
Antoine Winfield Jr. Interception #1 on Cover 3 seam pressure v Rutgers Scarlet Knights— The Gopher Report (@MinnesotaRivals) October 22, 2019
(Part of @mattyfbrown's new 📽️ article looking at the interceptions from last Saturday) pic.twitter.com/qX3EhTMwID
The ability to play man to man is a huge bonus for defensive coordinators, allowing them the ability to move the defensive line and blitz from different spots-alignments.
The problem is that finding a safety who can play single high, playing from the middle of the field to either sideline, is rare.
That is exactly the type of ability that Winfield Jr. has flashed this season. For whatever size Winfield might lack, he makes up for with his range. The young man can get from point A to point B in a flash.
Antoine Winfield Jr picks off Reyna on a floated TD pass and the Gophers win pic.twitter.com/3UuLaAxhYx— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) September 8, 2019
Now there is no guarantee that Antoine Winfield Jr. will throw his name into the 2020 NFL Draft fray, but him being a fourth year player certainly improves those chances.
With that range he demonstrates, it could make him a hot commodity in a safety class that seems to lack dynamic free safety types at the top of the class.
Add in the ability to profile as perhaps the best nickel defender in the entire class, we could be cooking with grease here folks.
Fill it up Regular, please
With Winfield’s lack of prerequisite size, it would be an easy mistake for people to believe that he must be a liability in the run game. This just isn’t true.
In fact, Winfield performs quite admirably in that department. He consistently flies up into the box, showing a refreshing disregard for his body.
When he sees it, he flies to it, demonstrating that high football IQ once again.
Second drive. Man, this kid is fun right now. He was shot out of a damn cannon. Antoine Winfield Jr has juice!— Dalton "Fall Damage" Miller (@DaltonBMiller) October 28, 2019
2 drives in and I think I love this kid. pic.twitter.com/2PRD02Shzm
As an alley defender, Winfield takes some very advantageous angles of attack. He consistently maintains leverage to the outside, rarely getting beaten to the corner.
Whether at the safety position or inside at nickel, Winfield Jr. demonstrates a scrappy nature that should allow him to find opportunity at the professional level.
There are certainly some nice building blocks at the safety position, for now I am penciling him in as a nickel-slot defender. There he has the toughness, physicality, intelligence and quick feet to immediately provide an upgrade at the position for a high volume of NFL teams.
And while Antoine Winfield Jr. still sits with another two years of eligibility after 2019, it is hard to believe that this specialized, versatile defensive back has much more left to prove at the collegiate level.
Cashing in off of a healthy and productive season, after two injury riddled years, could also remain in the back of his mind. For now, mark Winfield Jr. down to keep tabs on.
Like his father of the same name, this young man has all the tools to be a special player at the next level.