INDIANAPOLIS – Like father, like son?
As coaches and scouts spend the week projecting futures of 337 draft prospects at the NFL scouting combine, there might not be an easier player to match an NFL pro comparison than Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Because NFL teams have already seen dominance from an Antoine Winfield, the former Pro Bowl cornerback.
Winfield sees the comparison in replays from his dad’s days with the Bills and Vikings.
“It comes when I’m tackling,” Winfield Jr. said Friday. “Like I make a tackle and I’m like, ‘I’ve seen my dad make the same tackle watching his highlights.’ It’s just crazy to see the comparison between us, because we play the exact same.”
Winfield’s coveted blend of tenacity, position versatility and intellect lead analysts to project him as a first- or second-round pick in April’s draft. This week, coaches and scouts questioned his size and speed during interviews, so Winfield said he wants to match his personal best (around 4.3 seconds) during Sunday’s 40-yard dash.
There is no escape from comparisons to Dad during the draft process, and it’s welcomed when Winfield is asked about standing just a shade over 5-9 and 203 pounds. About “every team I go to,” according to Winfield, has a coach or scout with a strong impression of his dad.
“We’re almost about the same in size,” Winfield said. “My dad had a lot of heart, and that’s kind of what I looked up to in him.”
Winfield led the 11-win Gophers last fall with a team-high seven interceptions, an exclamation point on his college career marred by injuries in 2017 and 2018. He appeared in just eight games those two seasons, which caps his projection, according to ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
“This kid has that ‘it factor’ and feel for the game, the instincts for the game,” Kiper said. “Two years of great play and two years of injury is the reason why there’s some hesitancy about moving him up too far.”
In his most recent mock draft, Kiper has Winfield drafted by the Vikings at 25th overall; his dad was taken 23rd overall by the Bills in 1999. The Vikings have one experienced safety, Harrison Smith, signed for next season, and might need help at nickel corner, where Winfield also played in college.
So, another Winfield in purple?
“That would be incredible,” Winfield said. “When my dad played, I grew up a Vikings fan. That would be incredible to play for Minnesota after watching him all these years.”
Helping to vault Winfield to near the top of many 2020 draft rankings is the mental side, shown in how often Winfield saw throws or runs before they happened.
He recalled as an 11-year-old sitting next to his dad, then in one of his nine Vikings seasons, while Antoine Sr. scouted Detroit Lions film on a laptop.
“It was Calvin Johnson,” Winfield said. “I remember sitting next to [his father] and he was watching it and breaking the film down and everything. That’s a cool experience that most people don’t get.”
The NFL-like work ethic and meticulous approach transitioned to the University of Minnesota, where Winfield was a freshman All-America in 2016.
“He’d lock himself in his room and hop on a FaceTime call with his dad,” Gophers linebacker Carter Coughlin said. “They’d watch film for two to three hours. He’s watching with one of the best to ever do it, but Antoine loved that. That’s why he caught on to it all so fast.”
The trademark Winfield heart doesn’t hurt, which led to many competitive basketball and poker games between Winfield, Coughlin and Gophers teammates.
“All he does is win,” Coughlin said.
But does he have a good poker face?
“Eh, not so much,” Coughlin said. “He smiles a lot.”
The draft process has given Winfield plenty to smile about, because he’s feeling no pressure to live up to his father’s name.
“Not at all. I’m my own identity,” Winfield said. “I’m Antoine Winfield Jr. A lot of people call me Antoine Winfield. I’m like, ‘No, that’s my dad’s name.’ ”