Antoine Winfield Jr. ready to return to centerfield in Bucs defense

The Pro Bowl safety missed four games last season with an assortment of injuries after moving to the slot cornerback position.
Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. talks to the media at the conclusion of organized team activities Tuesday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa.
Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. talks to the media at the conclusion of organized team activities Tuesday at AdventHealth Training Center in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 2|Updated June 3

TAMPA — Antoine Winfield Jr. was a prize catch for the Bucs when he helped them win a Super Bowl as a rookie, and his fielding of passes is something the team missed a year ago when it moved its talented safety to the slot cornerback position.

Winfield was able to impact the game at more levels playing in the middle of the defense as a run-stopper, blitzer and in coverage against tight ends or running backs.

But the Bucs missed Winfield’s playmaking ability on the passes and had only 10 interceptions as a team, down from 17 in 2021 and 15 in 2020.

Moreover, at 5-feet-9, 203 pounds, the position switch took a physical toll on Winfield, forcing him to miss four games with an assortment of injuries.

Safety Mike Edwards signed with the Chiefs as a free agent in March, leaving the Bucs a little thin on the back end of the defense for players with ball skills.

That’s why coach Todd Bowles has said Winfield will return to a more traditional free safety position this season, where he can track passes like a centerfielder.

“I would say it’s similar to what I was doing last year,” Winfield said. " It’s just I’ll probably be in the middle of the field more.”

Does Winfield like the move? He had only one interception in 2022.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” he said. “Because I’m more in the middle of the field, (and) I’m able to play around and cover different things a little differently than playing in the slot over slot receivers. So, definitely.”

The combination of pressure and coverage has always been the mixture that produces turnovers. The Bucs forced 20 last season. When they won the Super Bowl, they had 25.

“That’s one of the goals that we’ve been trying to get better on each and every year, but especially this year,” Winfield said, “because we’ve got to have more turnovers because that ultimately leads to the offense getting more opportunities with the ball and us getting better chances to win the game.”

Mayfield, Trask miss against air

If you checked in on the Bucs’ quarterback competition Tuesday, chances are you came away unimpressed. Maybe even a bit disillusioned.

That’s because a video posted by Kyle Burger of ABC Action News went viral of Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask missing passes badly in pat-and-go drills against air.

First, Mayfield overshot a short pass to tight end Dominique Dafney. Then, Trask overthrew tight end Cade Otton.

Granted, neither quarterback has had a lot of work with those players. Trask was No. 3 on the depth chart the past two years and didn’t have many reps with Otton, and Mayfield just arrived in Tampa.

It was a bad snippet of film, to be sure. But it’s a new offense with new quarterbacks battling for the starting job and throwing to players they’re unfamiliar with.

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Both Mayfield and Trask got better as the day went on. But it’s fed a national narrative that the Bucs may be headed back to the basement without Tom Brady.

Trask said he embraces the daily battle against Mayfield.

“That’s the point of sports: We love competition,” Trask said. “We’ve been competing our whole lives. Obviously, there’s no bad blood or anything like that. Just pushing each other and making sure we get better each day.”

New rule won’t reduce need for good special teams play

The NFL recently made a major change to its kickoff rules, allowing returners to call for a fair catch and advance the ball to the 25-yard line. It’s an adaptation of the 2018 college football rule.

The league says they expect concussion rates to drop 15% with the rule change. But it also could lead to teams making more sqib kicks to force returns.

Still, Bowles said it won’t reduce the importance of special teams play, especially for rookies trying to make the roster.

“You’ve still got to make special teams to make this club,” he said. “If you’re not a starter and you’ve got a helmet on game day —minus the backup quarterback and maybe a backup offensive lineman — you should be touching the field at some point. Whether it’s kickoff return, punt, punt return or kickoff, you should be on special teams in some way, shape, or form or you probably shouldn’t have a helmet.”

Raheem to the rescue

Rams defensive coordinator and former Bucs coach Raheem Morris recently helped save a 3-year-old boy who was drowning in a Las Vegas pool, ESPN reported.

Morris was by the pool at the Encore Las Vegas when a young boy was taken to the lifeguard unresponsive. Morris rushed to see if he could help and asked where the AED (automated external defibrillator) was and was able to secure one.

It was an AED that helped save Bills safety Damar Hamlin when he collapsed on the field during a game in January. Morris referenced Hamlin’s situation and the recent drowning of Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett’s 2-year-old daughter in the family pool.

“I’m just thankful I knew what to do,” Morris told ESPN. “You just never know when you’re going to need that stuff.”

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