Most NFL rookies are finding out that it's a lot harder to learn the nuances of their new jobs in 2020 without the help of offseason practices or even preseason games. Imagine, then, being a rookie and having to learn two jobs simultaneously.
That's essentially the task that Antoine Winfield, Jr., the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-round pick in the 2020 draft, is faced with in the month of August. He's a safety by trade, and is listed as such on the roster, but the Buccaneers also think he has the cover skills to help out in the slot, as well. So Winfield is playing football in the morning, absorbing classroom coaching in the afternoon and then going back to his hotel room and hitting the books. He wants those jobs.
"It's difficult, but that's part of the job," said the former Minnesota Gopher standout. "My goal is to study and be the most prepared as I can be. I have to do two different jobs, and I'm going to go home and study every day to make sure I get those jobs done. It's difficult, but it's part of the work."
It's not particularly surprising that Winfield ended up in Tampa, which just happened to be the site of his final game as a Gopher. He was the 45th player drafted overall in April, as part of a four-team run on the position between the 36th and 45th spots. The Bucs were the fourth team in that run, but it's likely they got the exact man they had their eye on. The Arizona Cardinals drafted safety Tyrann Mathieu in the third round in 2013, the first year of Bruce Arians' run as head coach in the desert. The Cardinals later nabbed safety Budda Baker in the second round in 2017, which was Arians' fifth and final year at the helm. It just so happens that the two players to which Winfield is commonly compared are Mathieu and Baker. Bruce Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles clearly have a type.
And that type is a versatile defender. Winfield may be taking a couple concurrent crash courses right now but playing all over the field is nothing new to him.
"I played nickel, free safety, strong safety all throughout my college career, so I already know what each position is like," he said. "So right now I'm just focusing on learning the scheme of the defense, learning the techniques that we're supposed to use and just going out there and practicing hard. So I wouldn't say it's a huge difference from playing in college."
Studying helps a lot. Reps help even more. Winfield is taking all the snaps he can get, and he had a chance to be on the field more in Sunday's practice when second-year safety Mike Edwards was held out due to an eye infection. There's an open competition for the two starting safety spots as the regular season approaches, and the more Winfield gets on the field the harder it will be to get him off it in the end.
"He just makes plays every day," said Arians. "[There is] a lot of volume of information passed to him – he handles it really well. He executes the defense, he has great instincts. You can't stay out of practice very long [or] you're going to get beat out by him."
Winfield's father, Antoine Winfield, Sr., played 14 seasons in the NFL and made three Pro Bowls with the Vikings as a cornerback. The elder Winfield warned his son about the speed of the NFL game and counseled him to practice his techniques constantly, but he also stressed how important it was for an NFL newcomer to work hard at all times. Winfield, Jr. is taking that to heart.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
"I would just say that every time I'm out there, I'm giving it my all," said the second-generation NFL Winfield. "I know that we haven't been able to get as many reps as we would have, but just basically being able to take mental reps when I'm not in – seeing what the defense is doing when I'm not in, I feel like is a big part of taking those extra mental reps to get myself prepared."
Winfield's new teammates have taken notice. In fact, at times it doesn't seem like the rookie safety really missed all those offseason and preseason reps after all. Sean Murphy-Bunting remembers how some of his preseason experiences last year helped shape his approach to the game, an advantage Winfield won't have.
"It was definitely an eye-opener," said Murphy-Bunting. "It made me adjust to football really quickly, it made me adjust to the speed of the game really fast, as far as on an NFL level. And I think Winfield is really, really good at that and he's above what everybody else thought. As far as him coming in, he plays fast, he's smart, he listens, he's very coachable and he makes plays at the end of the day. That's all we want to do in the secondary is be playmakers and make plays. That's what he does."
Winfield was smiling during most of the interview on Sunday as he discussed the difficulties of learning two jobs and preparing for a rookie season amid a pandemic. He's clearly enjoying himself, and that helps make all the hard work easier to take.
"So far it's been an awesome experience," he said. "Everything is new coming in, so I'm learning new things every single day. I'm still working on getting better in all my areas of my game, but it's been a great experience so far."
Oh, by the way, those comparisons to Mathieu and Baker, both of whom have been to multiple Pro Bowls? Winfield doesn't shy away from them. In fact, he embraces them.
"Both are great players, all-around just great players," said Winfield. "If you turn on the film and watch them, they're all over the field. And that's kind of something that I do. I try to use my versatility as many ways as I can just to help my team. So I believe that's very accurate."