TAMPA — Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles broke the news to Antoine Winfield Jr. after practice one day last week: He had won the starting safety job as a rookie, despite no offseason workouts or having played preseason games, all canceled because of the coronavirus.
“He … said it was my spot, so go out and own it,” Winfield Jr. said. “And I was excited. I put a lot of work over the camp to get the starting job, and my goal is just to be the best that I can be for my team.”
The first call Winfield made was to his father, who played 14 seasons at cornerback in the NFL for the Vikings and Bills.
“He was excited,” Winfield Jr. said. "He was like, ‘What? You’re starting already? I thought that it would’ve taken you a few games before you got in.’ But he was like, ‘Congratulations, and just go out there and ball.’ "
That his first NFL start will come at New Orleans on Sunday against 41-year-old Saints quarterback Drew Brees was not lost on Winfield Jr. His dad played against Brees in 2008 and got a sack-fumble against him, and he also returned a blocked field goal 59 yards for a touchdown in a 30-27 win.
“It’s funny because I remember watching those games, him playing against New Orleans, and it’s just so surreal to actually be here and it’s actually coming up upon us Sunday,” Winfield Jr. said. “It’s going to be game time, and I’m just really excited to go out there and play.”
Winfield, a second-round draft pick from Minnesota, is part of a young secondary that does not have a starter older than 23 or with more than three years of pro experience. Winfield turned 22 last month. The sage veteran of the group is cornerback Carlton Davis, 23, a third-year pro from Auburn.
Winfield beat 24-year-old Mike Edwards for the starting safety job.
How quickly Winfield adapted to the Bucs' complex defensive scheme is just one justification for Tampa Bay bypassing an obvious need at running back in the second round of the draft to select him.
Winfield’s versatility is his biggest asset. At 5 feet 9 and 203 pounds, he has the speed and athleticism to cover in space but is stout enough to root out ball carriers in the running game. He also can move into the slot as a fifth defensive back.
“I can play pretty much anywhere,” Winfield said. “I can play on tight ends, I can play on slot receivers, I can blitz, I can play in the post. Versatility is my biggest asset, and I feel like Tampa Bay is going to use me well that way.”
What Bowles and head coach Bruce Arians love is how the ball always seems to find Winfield. In his first padded practice, he stripped a receiver of the ball and recovered the fumble in one motion.
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“He was around the ball every day,” Arians said. “He was creating fumbles, (and) he was getting interceptions. When we tackled, he tackled well. He showed us multiple-position flexibility.”
Shortly after the draft, general manager Jason Licht compared Winfield to Pro Bowl safeties Budda Baker and Tyrann Mathieu.
“It’s one of the things that we really loved about Antoine,” Licht said. "I hate doing comparisons to players in the NFL right now because he hasn’t stepped foot on the field in the NFL, but some of the reasons that we liked Budda Baker and Tyrann Mathieu — and I’m not putting him in that category yet — but we feel that he has the ability to play free and strong (safety).
“We play interchangeable in our scheme. (Winfield has) dropped down to nickel and done a really nice job there, too. So, (when) you’ve got a safety that can do all of those different things, it really raises his value.”
Edwards still is likely to have a big role in the defense. Because of Winfield’s versatility, Bowles could utilize three safeties in some packages.
“I feel like I’m getting prepared,” Winfield said. “The coach has a great game plan, and I’m studying and making sure I’m on top of my things so I can be at my best on Sunday. So I feel very prepared.”
The Tom Brady-Brees matchup is one that has brought back memories in the Winfield home. Winfield Sr. played against both.
“They have a great offense,” Winfield Jr. said. “Weapons everywhere. … So we’ve just got to do a great job containing them.”
He is likely to get unsolicited advice from his dad before his first NFL start.
“Usually, I would say, on game days he would shoot me a text message, just had some words of encouragement, things that I need to do in this game,” Winfield Jr. said. “He already knew the opponents I would be playing against, so he would shoot me some words of encouragement to just kind of get me going.”
Contact Rick Stroud at email@example.com or (727) 709-5982. Follow @NFLSTROUD