TAMPA, Fla. — When he was 5 years old, Antoine Winfield Jr. would spend his afternoons getting put through football footwork drills in the backyard by his father, who played 14 years in the NFL for the Bills and Vikings.
There was never any question that one day Winfield Jr. would be able to fill his dad’s cleats and make it to the NFL.
“He started me off at an early age and I feel like it just helped me develop faster than a lot of kids at my time,” Winfield Jr. said. “It means everything. I’ve dreamed about this moment since I was a little kid watching my dad play.”
That moment arrived Friday night when the Bucs made Winfield Jr., the All-American safety from Minnesota, their second-round pick (45th overall).
In fact, Winfield Jr. laughed when told that his father, Winfield Sr., intercepted Bucs quarterback Tom Brady — who is entering his 21st season — during his first year as a starter in 2001.
“It’s crazy. He hasn’t mentioned to me yet,” Winfield Jr. said.
Football is in Winfield’s blood. It’s part nature and a whole lot of nurture. But as Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck says, instincts like the ones Winfield Jr. has can’t always be taught; they are inherited.
“He has such a knack to play the game,” Fleck said. “You grow up with a farming father, you’re probably going to grow up with a knack for farming. A painter father, you’re probably going to have a knack for painting corners and be a little more meticulous.
“He grew up with a father who played 14 years in the National Football League. There’s a reason he has the instincts he has, It’s not based on me coaching him. He’s had that all along. But we’ve been able to put him in the right position to use his talents at an elite level. But he’s one of the best players in college football, one of the best defensive players in college football.”
The Bucs had an enormous need for a pass-catching running back as they entered the second day of the draft.
When their pick rolled around, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift had gone to the Detroit Lions and the Colts traded up in the second round to select Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, a real favorite of the Bucs’ coaching staff.
Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Florida State’s Cam Akers were both available when the Bucs’ turn arrived.
Having selected 10 defensive backs in the first four rounds of the past five drafts, it didn’t seem likely that the Bucs would go there again. But they did, and if you’ve seen the energy and play-making ability Winfield Jr. brings, you would know why.
Fleck has said the 5-foot-9 Winfield can tackle like a linebacker, has hands like a receiver and can cover like a cornerback.
“Versatility. I can play pretty much anywhere,” Winfield Jr., said. “I can play on tight ends. I can play on slot receivers. I can blitz, I can play the post. My versatility is my biggest asset and I feel like Tampa Bay will use me that way.”
If you don’t remember Winfield Jr., maybe this will jog your memory. The Golden Gophers hadn’t won much over the years until Fleck, the former Bucs receivers coach under Greg Schiano, arrived in Minneapolis in 2017.
Winfield Jr.’s career got off to a difficult start. He started nine games as a true freshman. But his next two seasons were torpedoed early by hamstring and foot injuries.
Then Winfield Jr. had a monster season in 2019, recording 88 tackles (3.5 for loss, three sacks) and seven interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. He also forced two fumbles.
His biggest play was a game-sealing interception against previously unbeaten Penn State, the biggest win for the program in 150 years.
Ironically, Winfield Jr. finished his college career at Raymond James Stadium as the Golden Gophers upset Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
“This year, in Gopher football, we did things we hadn’t done in 150 years,” Winfield Jr. said. “Once we got into the season, our goal was to win every weekend. We had a great time going out there and doing it, specifically against Penn State. I will remember that game the rest of my life. … That was a great game for me, I went out there and made a few plays.”
Winfield Jr. may have gone sooner, but his height may have been a factor. He is the same size as his father, who was drafted in the first round by the Bills in 1999, one year before Brady went to the Patriots. Winfield Sr. had 27 career interceptions and five defensive touchdowns.
“I think Antoine Winfield (Jr.), one, if you haven’t met him … he’s one of the best human beings you’ll ever meet in your entire life,” Fleck said.
“ … They’re getting a great teammate. He’s going to love the game, play the game the right way, respect his teammates. One of the things people don’t ever talk about enough is respecting the organization, respecting his head coach, respecting his GM, his owner, the reputation of the organization. They’re getting a gem, that’s for sure.”
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