Antoine Winfield Jr., is probably feeling pretty good about his decision to leave the Gophers early for the NFL right about now.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers listed their second-round pick as one of two starting safeties on the first depth chart, meaning Winfield likely will make his professional debut Sunday at the New Orleans Saints.
If Winfield had stayed with the Gophers, he wouldn’t be playing at all this year and only potentially in a delayed winter/spring season in 2021.
“It is unfortunate that it’s come down to this and that they can’t have a season,” Winfield said on an Aug. 23 video news conference. “I feel bad for all the guys back there in Minnesota, but that’s just the way of life right now. It’s just unfortunate times.”
The unanimous All-America selection and reigning Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year is one of a large group of Gophers on NFL rosters, practice squads or reserved lists while the college team sits out this fall with the rest of the conference because of COVID-19 concerns.
Winfield had two years of eligibility left despite being a member of the 2016 recruiting class after suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2017 and 2018. That 2016 class ended up producing a bevy of draftable talent, including the program’s all-time leading receiver Tyler Johnson.
Johnson also went to the Buccaneers in the fifth round but missed most of camp with a soft-tissue injury. He made the final 53-man roster, though he was reportedly close to being cut.
Besides Winfield, linebacker Kamal Martin was the other rookie most likely to make an immediate impact. The fifth-rounder impressed at the Green Bay Packers’ training camp, earning many reps with the first team. But the Burnsville native will not get a chance to make his NFL debut Sunday, when the Packers play in his home state against the Vikings.
Martin missed a chunk of his senior season with the Gophers because of an injury to his right knee, on which he had surgery ahead of the Outback Bowl. He tore the meniscus in his left knee and had surgery on that this month, meaning he’ll start his NFL career on injured reserve, out for at least six weeks.
Martin said in a video news conference back on Aug. 25 that he hadn’t been able to fully run on his right knee last November, only feeling close to normal around the April draft.
“It’s certainly a shame that he had a setback, but we all see a pretty bright future for him here,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said, per USA Today. “ … He’s very instinctive. There are some things that he just did naturally. We use the term triggering. When he sees something, he reacts to it quickly.”
Both Martin and Winfield likely will play similar roles as they did in college, as both have the versatility to play across the field. Former teammate Carter Coughlin, meanwhile, transitioned back to linebacker for the New York Giants after playing rush end the latter part of his Gophers career. He could play Monday against the Steelers.
There’s a chance to watch three former Gophers on Sunday, when the Arizona Cardinals face the San Francisco 49ers. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, tight end Maxx Williams and quarterback Chris Streveler all play for the Cardinals. Two will be in action Thursday, when safety Eric Murray’s Houston Texans take on linebacker Damien Wilson’s Kansas City Chiefs. Linebacker Blake Cashman (New York Jets) and cornerback Craig James (Philadelphia Eagles) will also play Sunday.
So Gophers fans can catch a glimpse, even if they miss watching their favorite college team on Saturdays.