The moment Antoine Winfield Jr.’s 40-yard dash time popped up on the board at the NFL Combine, the Minnesota Gophers’ star defensive back knew that he’d put himself in the first-round conversation, even if he wanted to be even faster than his 4.45 time.
“My goal was to run a 4.3,” Winfield Jr. told Purple Daily. “I was a little upset with the 4.45 but I was still excited with all the work that I put in…I was still cool with it.”
He should be cool with it. Winfield Jr.’s stock shot up throughout his senior season in Minnesota when he picked off seven passes, including two in the team’s upset win over Penn State that thrust them into the national conversation. Experts like Mel Kiper Jr. have included Winfield as a first-round pick in their mock drafts while others have him in the early second round.
The Minnesota Vikings could be intrigued with his playmaking ability if they elect to move on from safety Anthony Harris, who they franchised tagged but might not be able to afford long term.
Winfield Jr.’s skill set suggests he would be a fit with just about any team, splitting his time nearly 50-50 between playing in the box near the line of scrimmage and as a deep safety.
“I feel like that’s one of my biggest attributes is being versatile,” Winfield Jr. said. “I feel like I can play pretty much anywhere on the back end of the defense and I love it all. I love playing down in the box, I love blitzing, I love covering.”
At the Combine, the buzz around Winfield Jr. wasn’t just surrounding his 40-yard dash but the value of a versatile safety in a league that continues to trend more and more toward passing. The Gophers’ star said that he hopes to model his game in the NFL off Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, who was recently named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team.
“He’s used in Kansas City as that versatile piece where you’ll see him pretty much anywhere,” Winfield Jr. said. “You see him blitzing, you see him playing in the box, you see him playing in the post, he’s all over the field. And just his mentality of how he plays the game. You know he’s not the biggest guy like myself but you see he has that dog in him to go out there and dominate his opponent no matter no matter how big he is. That’s something that all DBs can relate to.”
Winfield Jr. enters the draft with a recent endorsement from Mathieu himself. ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Ryan Clark explained on Purple Daily this week.
“I sent out the tweet [about Winfield Jr.] and Tyrann Mathieu, who I’m close with because of the LSU tie, and he retweets me and says: ‘People are going to overthink it and not draft him and the dude’s going to be a two-time All-Pro by the time he’s 30,'” Clark said. “I think that’s the feel you get from him. He’s a football player. He has an innate ability to find the ball, whether it’s forcing fumbles, scooping fumbles, interceptions, tackles for loss. I think those are the players who end up being great players for your team. They play special teams, they play safety, they can play dime, they can play nickel so he’s a guy I’m very excited about coming into this draft.”
According to Pro Football Focus data, Mathieu had 315 snaps as a box safety, 483 at slot corner, 173 at free safety and even 82 on the defensive line.
“When you see a guy like Tyrann [Mathieu] win a Super Bowl and the effect that he’s had on any defense he’s played for, it becomes a copy cat league,” Clark said. “When you look around the league, you see a guy like Budda Baker and Malcom Jenkins, who kind of ushered in this era of nickel/dime safety and you do it all and play it all. That’s a spot that teams understand there’s a value at and he will fit perfectly into that.”
Clark explained that Winfield Jr. can become one of those versatile pieces with his combination of quickness, instincts and football IQ. In fact, the long-time NFL’er suggested that his son, a freshman at Arizona State, study Winfield Jr. film.
“He was home because of what’s going on and I shoot him a text at like midnight and I’m like, ‘I need you to Google Antoine Winfield Jr.,'” Clark said. “He’s watching it and texting me from his room and we’re texting back and forth…I think if Antoine Winfield Jr. is two inches taller, if he’s a little bit leaner and longer arms, we’re talking about this guy in the top 15.”
Winfield Jr. knows what it’s like to study tape with dad. His father, Antoine Winfield Sr. was a first-round pick and spent a successful career between Buffalo, Minnesota and Seattle. Junior had the advantage of breaking down opponents with one of the league’s versatile players of the early 2000s.
“I would bring up my opponents’ film on my iPad and I would FaceTime him so he could look at the film as well and I would get feedback from him on what he thought that I could do, say if a team runs certain concepts or how I could play it better or what I can do to position myself better to make plays,” Winfield Jr. said. “He always gave me advice on things that could elevate my game and it was great to have him there to always be able to do that. It definitely paid off.”
The returns from these tape sessions will keep coming — whether it’s Day 1 or Day 2 — in the NFL draft and beyond.