Antoine Winfield Jr: Path to the NFL Draft
The path to the NFL Draft has been more than just a football journey for Antoine Winfield Jr. It runs much deeper than that. You could say it runs in his blood. When he gets the phone call from an NFL team in late April, he’ll become the second Winfield to be drafted to the NFL in the last 21 years. Be under no illusion that he’s living off the family name, however. Hard work and a special talent have gotten him this far, and some fatherly advice has made sure that this destination has been his alone to choose.
“Be myself. Be unique. Don’t try and be like anybody else. Me and him share the same name but growing up he also said there was no pressure to play football. It was just something that I always wanted to do personally. That’s the best piece of advice he’s given me along this process.”
Antoine Winfield Jr finds inspiration close to home
Born in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1998, Antoine Winfield Jr was just months old when his father was drafted in the first round of the 1999 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. Although he spent the early years in Buffalo, it was the move to Minnesota that had the biggest impact on Antoine Jr. Growing up as a Vikings fan, he found his first love and inspiration watching his father playing in purple.
“I grew up watching him play football and that’s really where my inspiration came from to play football. Everybody wants to be like their father. When you see your father doing something special you wanna be like that, do what he does. At an early age I always knew that I wanted to play football, just from watching my Dad.”
Being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft is a significant achievement, one which Antoine Winfield Jr could replicate some 21 years later. It’s what happens after that defines your footballing legacy and his father would have a stellar career, being named an All-Pro three times. He was still just “dad” to Antoine Jr, despite the kudos it gave him in the school yard.
“It was weird, you know. As a kid, I didn’t really look at it in any specific way. I was just like, that’s my dad, but then I would go to school and all my friends would be like “yo, that’s so cool, your dad plays in the NFL” but I was like yeah, yeah, he’s just a regular guy. He was just a normal guy to me, in my eyes.”
"Texas High School football is the real deal!"
Antoine Winfield Jr played football from a young age in Minnesota, but after his freshman year in high school the family moved to Texas. As a player who played multi-state football, he’s uniquely positioned to have experienced two very different ends of the high school football spectrum.
“I was able to see what high school football was like in Minnesota and Texas and it is two totally different playing fields. Texas high school football is the real deal! It’s serious down here. There’s better athletes, better competition. Really when I got down here that’s when my workout habit started to kick in. I knew I had to get better and stand out more because there were better players down here. Credit Texas high school football to my work ethic and knowing what work to put in to be a great player.”
Texas high school football gave Antoine Winfield Jr not only the work ethic required to succeed at the game, but also gave him a glimpse of playing with the expectations of a wild fan base, in a big stadium, where the lights shine brightest on you.
“Oh man, it’s amazing. It’s just like Friday Night Lights. We had a lot of fans, big stadium, you know. The talk of the town was always high school football. It was an incredible experience.”
Antoine Winfield Jr winning at Woodlands
It was a winning experience at Woodlands High School too. In his senior year, the Highlanders would allow just 7.4 points per game, with Antoine Winfield Jr at its heart from the safety position.
“It was incredible. Just being able to lead that defense, the back end, was just fun during that time. We had one of the best defenses that year. It was fun to be a part of it.”
His role in the success of the Highlanders defense would lead to him being named the Montgomery County Player of the Year.
“That meant a lot. Any accolades that I get, you know, I treat them all the same. I enjoy every accolade that I have because I know that a lot of work was put into that. Any accolades that I get over the years, it’s just always a great feeling to be recognized.”
There would be plenty more accolades to come just a few years later.
Making an immediate impact in Minnesota
Antoine Winfield Jr would leave Woodlands High School as a 3* recruit. Even here he forged his own path. Although he took a visit to the Ohio State Buckeyes, his father’s former college, he narrowed down his college football journey to two options.
“Coming out of high school I wasn’t heavily recruited. For me, the schools I was going to choose between were the University of Houston and Minnesota. We lived in Minnesota for nine years, so I had friends up there. I remember going up to visit one summer and one of my friends had committed to Minnesota to play football and while I was up there he was like “Yo Antoine, you should come take a visit and check out Minnesota”. At the time I was definitely not going back to Minnesota, there was no way. Somehow, he convinced me to go up there and take a visit. I fell in love with the place and it was the best decision I ever made.”
It was a decision that paid off immediately. Whilst a lot of 3* recruits take a redshirt year as a freshman to get used to college life and adjust to the pace of the game, Antoine Winfield Jr make an instant impact on the field in 2016 as a freshman. He started in nine games, a testament to his hard work and desire.
“That was my goal, to go up there and earn a starting spot. It was a lot of hard work put into that. It wasn’t just given to me, I had to earn it. That was my goal, to come in and make an immediate impact for the team.”
Maryland provides high and lows for Antoine Winfield Jr
In his first year as a Gopher he racked up 52 tackles included 2.5 tackles for loss and showed the first glimpses of the ball hawk skills that would be one of the key elements of his game with three passes defended. Those included his first touchdown of his career, an 82-yard interception returned to the house against Maryland.
“That was cool, you know. You always wanna get as many pick sixes as you can. But for that to be my first one, I just remember being really excited afterwards. It’s one of those things that you always look forward to when a game is coming up.”
Maryland would become a defining program in the Antoine Winfield Jr story. After experiencing the highs of a pick six against the Terrapins in 2016, the next two encounters would see him experience the lows that the game of football can bring.
Both 2017 and 2018 started off in similar fashion. He’d excelled on the field during the first three games of the season, recording his first career sack in 2017 and another interception in 2018. However, in the fourth game of each season, against Maryland, he would suffer season ending injuries. In 2017 it would be a hamstring and in 2018 a left foot injury would keep him off the football field.
“It was tough, but I was never really away from football. In the time I was injured I was pretty much coaching the younger DBs. I actually learned a lot more about football being injured than I have actually playing. I kinda attribute the success that I’ve had this last year from being able to sit out and actually learn more about football.”
NFL Draft stock soars in a magical year for Minnesota
There is no denying the success that Antoine Winfield has had in 2019. He has seen his NFL Draft stock soar with every game, in a season where the Minnesota Gophers have been one of the fairytale stories of College Football.
“We knew we had something special going on that year during fall camp and spring ball. You could just tell that everything clicked. Our culture clicked and all the players were on the same board with what we needed to accomplish. Going through those practices in spring and fall camp you could just see the team’s dynamic totally shifted and we knew we were gonna have a great year. It was incredible just to do things that the Minnesota football program hasn’t done in over 100 years. It was an awesome year, we had fun doing it, and I was a glad to be a part of it.”
Having spent his childhood being inspired by his father, the Minnesota Gopher gave him another daily inspiration in Coach P.J. Fleck.
“Man, P.J. Fleck is one of the most influential people I know, in my life. He’s one of those guys that you WANT to play for.”
2019 wrapped up for Antoine Winfield Jr and the Minnesota Gophers with an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn, a marquee win to cap off a standout year. Antoine led the team in tackles, contributed 3.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and once again showcased his playmaking skills with seven interceptions.
Accolades and Antoine Winfield Jr takes his shot
The accolades that had first started at Woodlands High School showered down on him once more including being voted to the All-Big Ten First Team and receiving the award for the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. One accolade exceeded all others for his magnitude and rarity.
“The Unanimous All-American probably meant the most because I believe I was the sixth or seventh player in Minnesota history to be a Unanimous All-American. I think that one stood out the most because it’s such a special thing to achieve as a player.”
After the 2019 season, Antoine Winfield Jr was faced with a choice, another crossroads on the path to the NFL Draft. After missing the majority of 2017 and 2018 due to injury, he still had another two years of college eligibility, but he was also eligible to declare for the NFL Draft.
“I talked with my parents about it. Talked to my coaches. I had a lot of time to think about it. I felt like I was the best mentally and physically to enter to the league. It’s always been a dream of mine, so I decided to take my shot.”
Getting attention at the NFL Combine
With the decision to go to the NFL Draft came the invite to the NFL Combine. In a deep safety class Antoine Winfield Jr put on an impressive show, including one of the best 40-yard dash times from anyone at the position.
“I thought the overall combine was a success. It was great being able to meet other players, meet different teams and coaches. The only thing I wanted to improve was my 40 time. I ran a good 40 but I wanted to run a 4.3, that was my goal. Everything else was a success.”
One player who was taking notice at the NFL Combine has inspired Antoine Winfield Jr’s game. Tyrann Mathieu has been vocal on social media during, and since, the combine about his love of his game and the feeling is reciprocated.
Somebody gonna overthink it. He will be 2x All pro by time he 30. I see that when I watch him. He smart. Go to sleep & think bout the plays he gon make. I hope we get him.— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) April 1, 2020
“My top two guys are Tyrann Mathieu and Earl Thomas. Those were two safeties that I looked up to growing up. Watching them play, I wanted to mould my game like theirs.”
Takeaways. Versatility. Tackiling ability
When you watch Antoine Winfield Jr out there on the football field, you can see where he gets his inspiration. He’s versatile, being able to play strongly against the pass and the run. The speed that he showed at the NFL Combine shows up on the field. He’s clearly a ball hawk as evidenced by his college pass break up numbers.
“I create takeaways, that’s my number one thing. That’s what I do really well. That ultimately results in wins. I’m effective in the blitz game. Versatile, you can use me anywhere on the back end of the field. I’m a smart, intellectual player and I have great tackling ability.”
Whilst acknowledging that he has areas of his game he’d like to work on, noticeably in press-man coverage, there’s no denying that Antoine Winfield Jr has the confidence in his game to match his work ethic and skill set. Opinions on the top of the 2020 NFL Draft safety class vary, but he’s in no doubt.
“Antoine Winfield Jr. Xavier McKinney. Grant Delpit.”
Antoine Winfield Jr ready to write his own NFL story
There’s a little less than three weeks until Roger Goodell puts the Cincinnati Bengals on the clock to open the 2020 NFL Draft. For 255 prospects, one phone call will change their life. In many respects Antoine Winfield Jr been waiting for the phone call his entire life.
“It would mean everything. I’ve wanted to play in the NFL ever since I was a young kid. I grew up watching my Dad play and watching him at a young age I always knew that was something I wanted to do in life. It would just mean everything. It would show that all the hard work actually paid off.”
He’s watched his father’s NFL story be written during 14 years in the league.
Now it’s time for Antoine Winfield Jr to write his own, unique, NFL story.
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Photo Image Credit: AP Photo/Stacy Bengs
Huge thanks to Antoine Winfield Jr for taking the time to speak to us. Also thanks to Tatiana Patton at Wasserman Football for connecting us.