For all the impressive work Jason Licht, Bruce Arians and their staff did in free agency in 2020, it might not have resulted in a Super Bowl championship if they hadn't also nailed the first two rounds of the draft.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 offseason started with the twin pursuits of signing Tom Brady and keeping the core of a rising defense intact. Those goals had been successfully achieved by the time the draft arrived on April 23, and just two days before Round One the Buccaneers also swung a deal for the no-longer-retired Rob Gronkowski. While there would be a few more key additions along the way (Leonard Fournette, Ryan Succop, Antonio Brown, etc.), the draft was the best way to address a few remaining depth chart needs.
The Buccaneers did just that, ending up with two Day One starters with their first two picks, plus a couple of offensive contributors in running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn and wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Those two starters would also play and excel in Super Bowl LV, earning championship rings in their very first NFL campaigns. As we count down the 15 most impactful roster moves the Bucs made in 2020 on the way to that title, we can't ignore how important the draft in April was. Today we get to one of those first two selections.
Note: The countdown we are constructing over three weeks does roughly progress towards the most impactful moves at the end, but it is not strictly a ranking. There's not much of a distinction to be drawn between moves listed near each other in the countdown, and we're not trying to say that any particular re-signing on defense was more important than the next. There is, however, a clear number one. These are also not in chronological order.
Countdown: Top 15 Transactions in the Buccaneers' Pursuit of the 2020 Championship
6. Drafted S Antoine Winfield Jr. in the Second Round, April 24
To no one's surprise, the Buccaneers used their first-round pick to address a need on their offensive line, a decision we will surely be examining next week. There was actually a pretty strong consensus among NFL draft analysts last spring that the Buccaneers would use their second-round pick, number 45 overall, on a running back, with LSU's Clyde Edwards-Helaire a common prediction. We'll never know for sure if the Buccaneers would have taken Edwards-Helaire at 45 because he was actually drafted by Kansas City with the last pick of the first round. Regardless, it's pretty safe to say the Buccaneers were pleased with the player they did get at 45.
It seems likely in retrospect that Licht and Arians had Winfield targeted from the beginning, given that well-regarded backs Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins were still on the board, and the Buccaneers later targeted Vaughn in the third round. Meanwhile, three safeties had been selected in the nine spots just before the Bucs were on the clock.
"Well I guess I would say that we obviously had Antoine Winfield graded pretty high," said Licht at the end of the draft's second night. "It's also a position that we wanted to address in the draft. We felt that as the draft rolled along that we'd be able to hopefully get a running back that we liked that we had graded at a high value and that's the way we did it. We felt the safeties were coming off pretty quick and if we left Antoine sitting there on the board, he wouldn't be there. We feel very good about the decision we made here and we're excited to have Antoine here."
The Bucs knew they were after a safety in the draft but with recent draft picks Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards already on the team along with reliable veteran Andrew Adams, it wasn't necessarily easy to peg that as a need from the outside. But the Buccaneers viewed Winfield as a big-play machine – he had seven interceptions and three sacks as a senior at Minnesota – and that was an element they wanted to add to the back end of their defense.
Winfield didn't disappoint. He was so impressive in training camp, constantly being described as a veteran-like player, that he was given the starting job next to Whitehead to start the season. It was essentially the only surprise on the first 2020 depth chart the Bucs released, as Edwards had taken most of the first-team reps in camp.
"He was around the ball every day," said Arians on the day of that depth chart reveal. "He was creating fumbles, he was getting interceptions. When we tackled, he tackled well. He showed us multiple-position flexibility. Mike did a heck of a job, too."
Winfield took that momentum right into the regular season. He had six tackles, a hit on the quarterback and a pass defensed in his very first NFL game, the Week One loss at New Orleans. Winfield recorded a sack in each of the next two games and had his first forced fumble in a win over Carolina. Just a few weeks into his rookie season, it was very clear that everyone at team headquarters loved Antoine Winfield, Jr.
The rest of the league took notice, too. On October 1 he became the first Tampa Bay defensive back ever to win an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month award. He got that after finishing September with 23 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits, one tackle for loss, two passes defensed and a forced fumble in just three games. He was the only rookie in the league who had already made a mark in all of those statistical categories at that point.
Winfield got his first NFL interception in Week Seven at Las Vegas. He picked off a short pass over the middle and returned it to the Raiders' 24 to set up a quick touchdown drive that helped the Bucs pull away for a 45-20 victory. He also added a third sack and another forced fumble in the Week 14 game against Minnesota that started the Bucs' season-capping eight-game winning streak.
Winfield wasn't done. Though he would miss the NFC Championship Game due to an ankle injury, he would make a big impact in the rest of the playoffs. He started with six tackles and two stops for loss in the Wild Card win at Washington. In the Divisional Round game at New Orleans, it was his momentum-swinging strip of tight end Jared Cook that led to Devin White's recovery and 18-yard return to set up the game-tying field goal in the third quarter. He had six tackles in that game, too.
Finally, in Super Bowl LV, Winfield was part of a dominant, swarming defense that did not allow Patrick Mahomes and an explosive Chiefs defense to score a single touchdown in a 31-9 decision. The rookie safety once again had six tackles, this time adding two passes defensed and an interception. His pick, a heads-up diving grab of a ball deflected by Edwards in the third quarter, led to a field goal and the final points of the Super Bowl and essentially made the fourth quarter an extended victory parade. Winfield's interception on the game's biggest stage was recently included in a video here on Buccaneers.com highlight the Top 10 Bucs Plays of 2020.
Between the regular season and the playoffs, Winfield finished his rookie season with 109 tackles, three sacks, four quarterback hits, two interceptions, eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. In addition, he almost never came off the field, even when Edwards started to get a bigger share of playing time. In the 19 games in which he played, Winfield was on the field for 1,246 of a possible 1,275 defensive plays, or 97.7%.
The Buccaneers may not have gone in the direction many expected in the second round of the 2020 draft, but they got the exact player they wanted and he delivered even more than they could have expected in his rookie campaign.