Todd Bowles gave Antoine Winfield Jr. the news on Tuesday after practice, the first one of the regular season for the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bowles generally speaks in measured tones and doesn't add a lot of unnecessary flourishes to his words, but he did have one compact piece of advice as he told Winfield he would be opening his NFL career as a starter.
"He kind of just came up to me after a practice and said it was my spot, so go out and own it," said Winfield. "I was just excited. I've put in a lot of work over the camp to get the starting position and now my goal is just to be the best I can be for my team."
The Buccaneers drafted Winfield in the second round out of Minnesota this April after he emerged as one of the biggest playmaking defensive backs in the nation. Like all NFL rookies in 2020, Winfield was thrust into his first training camp without the benefit of a single offseason practice or preseason game. That didn't stop him from immediately making the competition with second-year man Mike Edwards for the second safety spot opposite Jordan Whitehead a tight one.
In the end, Winfield's nose for the football – the same thing that helped him snare seven interceptions for the Gophers last fall – was just too good to be kept off the field.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
"He was around the ball every day," . He was creating fumbles [and] he was getting interceptions. When we tackled, he tackled well. He showed us multiple-position flexibility. Mike [Edwards] did a heck of a job, too. Mike just missed a tackle, but that's about what happens right now."
Winfield isn't the only rookie who will start on opening day this weekend; he's not even the only one on his team. First-round draft pick Tristan Wirfs has locked down the right tackle job, as was largely expected. NFL newcomers will be thrown into the fire like never before all across the league. In Winfield's case, though, he'll be doing it against the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes. Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Jared Cook and Emmanuel Sanders should make for a stern test in Winfield's first professional game, but the Bucs aren't hesitating to let him make his debut under those circumstances.
"He's a good football player, regardless of this situation or any situation," said Bowles. "He's earned that right. He's smart, he's heady, he makes plays and he makes you trust him. And he just goes out and plays football. That's all he has to do on Sunday."
Winfield joins a starting secondary that is largely made up of players still shy of their 25th birthday. The rest of that group learned the hard way in 2020 how important solid communication is to the defense's success. That was lacking in the first half of the season, but as those young players learned Bowles' schemes better and became more confident they communicated better and played immensely better in the second half of the campaign.
According to Lavonte David, another Buccaneer defender who was a starter from his very first NFL game, that won't be an issue for Winfield, and that's one reason David is confident in his new teammate.
"Once he stepped in, he was communicating, he was talking loud," said the veteran linebacker. "I've seen a lot of growth from him since Day One. I'm really…I woudn't say 'surprised,' but I'm really thrilled he was one of those guys like that. It's not a lot of times you get a rookie coming in as a free safety and making calls. Sometimes they're not sure of themselves, but he's very sure of himself. He's talking, he's communicating, he's making sure you get the call. The main thing for him is he's loud and vocal in his communication and I really like that."
Winfield won't even be the first member of his family to be tested by Brees on the Superdome turf. Antoine Winfield, Sr. was a standout cornerback for 14 seasons in the NFL and his 198 games played between the regular season and postseason included three against the Saints in New Orleans. The most memorable of those was the 2009 NFC Championship Game, which the Saints pulled out in a 31-28 thriller for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Winfield, Sr. had four tackles in that game and another nine back in the Superdome for the opener the following season. His best performance against Brees in New Orleans came in October of 2008, however, as he racked up eight solo tackes, a sack, five tackles for loss, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a 30-27 Vikings victory.
It's funny because I remember watching those games, like him playing against New Orleans," said the younger Winfield. "It's just so surreal to actually be here. It's already coming up upon us on Sunday, so it's going to be game time. I'm just really excited to go out there and play."
The Buccaneers likely won't need Winfield to put together as robust of a stat line as his father did in that contest a dozen years ago. They just need him to take care of his assignments and not let the moment – or the future Hall of Famer across the line of scrimmage – be too big for him.
"My goal is just to go in there and do my job – try not to do too much or do anybody else's job, just do mine and make any plays that I can make for my team to give us the best chance to win. I feel like I'm getting prepared. The coach has a great game plan. 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."