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Antoine Winfield Jr. will be in the land of big men this season

The Bucs safety is learning how to play the slot cornerback position, a bigger physical challenge for the 5-foot-9, 203-pounder.
Antoine Winfield Jr. has been cross-training at the slot cornerback position this offseason and in training camp.
Antoine Winfield Jr. has been cross-training at the slot cornerback position this offseason and in training camp. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 26|Updated Aug. 26

TAMPA — Antoine Winfield Jr. made his debut on the NFL’s Top 100 players list this year at No. 75. Entering his third season, he’s already recognized as one of the top safeties in the league.

“It was cool. I grew up watching it,” Winfield said. “I would always look and search up the safeties that made it the previous years just to see like what they did and try to better myself. It was a surreal moment to actually be a part of the Top 100.”

So, why is a player who has gained such recognition as a centerfielder suddenly mixing it up with 300-pound guards and downhill running backs?

This offseason and in training camp, Winfield has been cross-training at the slot cornerback position.

It’s a hybrid spot that requires the toughness of a linebacker, the coverage ability of a cornerback and the ball skills of a safety.

The fact is, the Bucs are looking for someone to come down in the box and root out ballcarriers the way safety Jordan Whitehead did for four seasons before signing as a free agent with the Jets.

“I love it,” Winfield said. “That’s the money spot. That’s where the action is ,so I’m all here for it. I can’t wait until we actually start playing and stuff. It’s going to be fun.”

Of course, the position was revolutionized by former Bucs Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, who filled a stat sheet worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Winfield hasn’t spent any time talking about the transition with Barber, who serves as the Bucs’ TV color analyst during the preseason. He doesn’t need to. Like all things Winfield, he defers to his father, Antoine Sr.

“I would say one person I talk to all the time is my dad, because he played the slot as well,” Winfield said. “Once I told him I was going over there, he said, ‘Ah that’s great. I can’t wait until I can start going over the film with you, because he played a lot of slot in his career.”

Bucs coach Todd Bowles has no doubt Winfield will be effective down in the tackle box.

“He’s a football player. He plays just like his dad,” Bowles said. “He is a little quicker. He is short, but he is compact, he is heady, tough, and understands the game. You can’t replace that.”

If Winfield playing slot cornerback is not enough of a surprise, the fact that Sean Murphy-Bunting no longer is at that position may be. Murphy-Bunting is playing exclusively at cornerback this season.

“it’s been obviously different,” Murphy-Bunting said. “I’ve been lining up outside more so than in the slot like I’ve been doing the past few years. I think it’s more of a comfort thing. I’ve gotten comfortable being on the outside, and I’m comfortable on the inside as well. It’s just honing your craft. I put my head down and work and try to get better every day.”

Bowles likes to be creative with his array of formations, blitzes and coverages, particularly utilizing multiple safety looks.

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The Bucs fortified the safety position with the addition of veterans Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal to Winfield and Mike Edwards. That gives Bowles some flexibility to play three safeties if he chooses to.

Even so, it’s a bit of a surprise the Bucs would risk a Top 100 player at safety in the land of big men.

“We’re trying to get the nuances down for him,” Bowles said. “Everybody else pretty much knows it. We think he is very physical down there, he is one of our better blitzers and he is one of our better cover guys, so we’re just trying him out and getting him some action for different games.”

Murphy-Bunting has no doubt Winfield will be successful at the nickel corner position when he is called to play there.

“He’s a really good, smart player, and he’s always open to play any position Coach needs him to play,” Murphy-Bunting said. “I think for him it’s getting a grasp of it each and every day and getting better and better at his position, knowing where his help is and where his help isn’t. That’s just a testament to him for being able to work from safety to there, and I know he can do it.”

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