When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put out their very first depth chart of 2020, just five days before the season opener in New Orleans, there was only one real surprise among the 22 starters listed. Though Mike Edwards took the majority of the first-team reps at safety in training camp, it was rookie Antoine Winfield, Jr. who occupied the top spot next to Jordan Whitehead on the chart.
And it was really only a mild surprise, because Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers' coaching staff had glowing reviews of Winfield's work throughout training camp. As for Winfield's teammates, it was probably no surprise at all. What they saw in August was a rookie who looked like a season veteran, one who was ready to step right in despite the lack of an offseason program or preseason games.
"Being a rookie is just a title based on the years you've obviously not played in the NFL," said defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, who had a similar presence when he first joined the Detroit Lions in 2010. "He doesn't look at it that way, and I think that's something that allows him to play at a high level."
Two games into his career, it doesn't look like Winfield will be relinquishing that spot any time soon. The praise from his coaches and teammates that was flowing in training camp has only intensified since he started to make his plays against opposing teams. It's early, but it's already official: Everybody loves Antoine.
"I think he's going to be great," said Whitehead. "He puts his nose in the run game, he can cover, he can blitz – that's the ultimate safety. He can play any position on the defense. Offensive guys, the quarterback don't know what we're in because he can be up by the line, I can be up by the line. It looks the same but we're different players and they don't know. Learning early and being able to call things out, and just how comfortable he is out there, the sky's the limit. He's just going to keep growing from there."
Winfield's first NFL game was in New Orleans, and he played an important role in holding Drew Brees to 160 passing yards. The precocious rookie finished that game with six sacks, a pass defensed and a hit on Brees, and his most impressive play might have been an all-out dive in the end zone to try to snare an interception. (The pass fell incomplete and the Saints kicked a field goal.) In his second game, Winfield turned it up another notch with 11 tackles and a sack that forced a fumble by Teddy Bridgewater. Jason Pierre-Paul recovered and Mike Evans scored on a 23-yard catch on the next play.
That all-around effort made Winfield the NFL's first rookie since 2018 to combine at least 10 tackles with a sack and a forced fumble in a single game. Winfield and second-year cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting have become fast friends and Murphy-Bunting said that Winfield had predicted he was going to get to Bridgewater.
"It's just a big play by a big-time player," said Murphy-Bunting. "For it to be his first turnover caused in a game, it was a real big thing to him, it was a real big thing to all of us. He was nominated for Rookie of the Week and stuff like that. I was really, really excited for him. He told me he was going to do it, so just to see him do it, it was kind of like calling his own shot. It was kind of cool."
So how has Winfield assimilated into the NFL so rapidly, and why does he already play the game like a veteran? One popular theory that probably is part of the equation is that growing up with a father who played 14 seasons in the NFL allowed Winfield, Jr. to absorb the game at a steady pace for years. Antoine Winfield, Sr. was a cornerback for the Bills and Vikings and a three-time Pro Bowler, and he and his son still break down tape together for about an hour after every game.
"I like Antoine Winfield a lot," said Suh. "He's a very quiet, humble kid. A true professional – I can see it, just probably because of his father, having that experience. But he's very focused, very detail-oriented. [He] asks great questions during our walk-throughs and meetings when we're all together. And I think those details and those things that are asked of him are starting to show up on the football field as he's gotten a chance to get after the quarterback or come on blitzes. I think he has a very, very bright future as long as he stays on that path and remains consistent."
A bigger part of the equation as to Winfield's readiness to step in at the pro level is what Suh mentions above: The 22-year-old is just smart, focused and detail-oriented so he tends to do most things right the first time.
"Antoine continues just continues to make play after play and is in the right position," said Arians after Winfield's big game against the Panthers. "He studies the game, so he's in the right position all the time."
While Suh may see some of himself in Winfield, the former was the second-overall pick in 2010 while Winfield was chosen in the middle of the second round. In that regard, he's more like inside linebacker Lavonte David, a mid-second round pick in 2012. David also came in NFL-ready and hit the ground running, and has since become one of the most respected players in the Bucs' locker room even though he doesn't say too much.
David did have plenty to say about what he thinks of Winfield after just a short time of sharing the field with him.
"I think 'Toine, he just knows football," said the Buccaneer captain. "He's one of those kids who's a football player, than his common sense takes place and it's just knowing football 101, where he fits where he's supposed to fit and where he's supposed to be on the back end. I just know 'Toine, he flies around. I know last week he got pressure on Drew Brees blitzing off the edge and this week he was able to come home with it. He beat a back, continued the play and had a sack-forced fumble. Just a great play by him, sticking with the play and understanding what's about to happen. When 'Toine first came in, I knew he was going to be one of those guys who could help us out big on the back end. He's flying around. It's something that you don't see from a rookie so I'm very pleased."
So is Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles, who saw his young group of cornerbacks grow into a cohesive and productive group in the second half of last season. Now that youthful secondary has another playmaker at the back end of the defense to make it even more formidable.
"He plays beyond his years right now," said Bowles. "He plays like a veteran. He understand the game, he plays the game the right way and he makes his plays. He understands when his opportunity comes up he has to make the play and he does."