The 2019 Minnesota Golden Gophers football team did something they haven’t done in a really long time: Gave us moments to remember.
PJ Fleck’s club went 11-2 — a record that included an upset over Penn State and a Bowl victory against Auburn. They finished 10th in the AP poll and did it in exciting fashion, scoring 34 points per game.
Along the way, one player emerged as a potential first-round pick and two others have a good chance to be selected. Each of them would make for a fit with the Minnesota Vikings.
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. emerged as a top prospect throughout the season, picking off seven passes and adding 3.5 sacks. If he wasn’t already on NFL teams’ radar, his two picks against Penn State put him there.
Like his father before him, there were questions about his size and athleticism heading into the NFL Combine but those questions were answered when he raced to a 4.45 40-yard dash, opening up the door for the son of a star nickel corner back to be able to play the position in the NFL himself if called upon. Per PFF data, he moved all over the field for the Gophers, lining up as a deep safety on 399 plays, in the box for 284 and as a slot corner on 85 plays.
“I really like his film,” ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen said on Purple Daily. “He’s a football player. That’s the best way to say it. A ton of on-the-ball production, he had seven picks last season. He has good transition speed and what I mean by that is he can break downhill on the football. Very aggressive in the run game and they use him as a blitzer. He’s a good tackler in space.”
The Vikings haven’t made a decision yet on whether they will keep Anthony Harris on a long-term contract or trade him on draft night but Winfield Jr.’s versatility opens the door to fitting in regardless. With Mackensie Alexander exiting in free agency, the Vikings lack a true nickel corner. Winfield’s high football IQ might also allow him to play a multifaceted role in the mold of Kansas City’s Tyrann Mathieu and then eventually take over for Harrison Smith years down the road.
“He has versatility,” Bowen said. “I don’t think he’s a true slot corner but I think he’s a slot safety if you play your sub package with three safeties on the field he can roll down into that slot position.”
Bowen said Winfield Jr. is a fit in Mike Zimmer’s defense.
“He’s best in a quarters-based defense and in quarters you’re four deep, that’s the base defense of Mike Zimmer,” Bowen said. “I think he’s a tremendous player and I think he’s somewhere in the top of the second round, mid-second round, somewhere in that range…that’s a guy that, if I’m a coach, that’s a guy I want in the room.”
Whether the Vikings will have a shot at Winfield Jr. is questionable. ESPN’s Todd McShay has him going 19th to the Oakland Raiders in his most recent mock draft.
Wide receiver Tyler Johnson has the unfortunate luck of being in the draft with many other elite talents at the position. Over the last two seasons, few receivers in college football have produced at a more impressive rate. In 2018 he caught 78 passes for 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns and followed up his breakout year with 86 receptions for 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019.
Johnson was tremendously productive out of the slot, where he caught 67 of his passes and ranked fifth in the nation in slot yards, per PFF. He was especially effective down field, where he caught 13 of 18 passes that traveled more than 20 yards.
“With Johnson I think you’re looking at someone who fits more inside in the slot and becomes a matchup player that you can scheme open,” Bowen said. “He has the physical traits, he has the ball skills, some of the best in the class in terms of making plays and contested catches, making plays in traffic, working the middle of the field…he doesn’t have elite traits in terms of separation ability and that’s one reason he’ll slide in the draft.”
With that resume, the second or third round might be in play but there have been rumors of “character concerns” and his decision to skip Combine evens to focus on a Pro Day may have hurt his draft stock because the Coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person visits. NFL.com’s draft profile pointed to his play and production when judging his drive:
“Johnson’s lack of speed and explosiveness make it hard to create clean catch windows unless he’s working against zone. However, he’s an absolute rebound champ, using instincts, timing and an impressive knowledge of body control to keep defenders away from the football and make it his own. His production speaks directly to his ball skills and competitiveness.”
While the Vikings might have a shot at picking one of the top receiving prospects in the first round with either the No. 22 or No. 25 pick, they have been known to pick multiple receivers later in the draft. In 2017 they selected Rodney Adams and Stacy Coley and then last year they picked Bisi Johnson and Dillon Mitchell. If Johnson slides down the draft board, it would be hard to justify passing on such a highly productive receiver.
In the later rounds, the Vikings could have some interest in defensive end Carter Coughlin, whose draft stock was high heading into the 2019 season but failed to match the sack production of his 2018 season. He dropped from 9.5 to 4.5 sacks but still created 37 QB hurries and nine QB hits in 294 pass rush snaps.
The concern is whether he can translate to an NFL defensive end at 6-foot-3, 236 pounds. However, his 4.57 40-yard dash opens the door for him to transition into playing linebacker. For the Vikings he could be a project player who begins on special teams and aims to develop into a quality player like Eric Wilson has over the last three years.
“Smallish edge defender who plays with high football IQ and motor to help create impact production. Coughlin is a proactive rusher who mixes up his approach to access the edge, but he’ll need to develop his hands and play with leverage to beat NFL tackles. He may be between positions due to a lack of size and suddenness, so shining as a core special-teamer is essential.”