When Antoine Winfield Jr. was tackling Auburn players to the turf at Raymond James Stadium almost four months ago, little did he know it was a premonition of his near future.
The former Gophers safety went in the second round (45th overall) of the NFL draft Friday to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, becoming his alma mater’s highest draft pick since Ra’Shede Hageman went 37th in 2014.
The 21-year-old Winfield played his last collegiate game in Tampa in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, a dominant win against an SEC powerhouse. Shortly after, the fourth-year sophomore decided to forgo his final two years of eligibility to declare for the draft.
Now he joins a Buccaneers team that’s a threat for a deep postseason run after a series of recent moves, including acquiring six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady and three-time Super Bowl champion tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“That means everything,” Winfield said of Tampa Bay’s deep talent pool. “I was actually just talking to my dad about that, just talking about the players they had. I’m just ready to be that additional piece to help them win a Super Bowl this year. So I’m just extremely excited.”
Winfield celebrated his drafting at his father’s house in The Woodlands, Texas.
His father, Antoine Winfield Sr., is a former Vikings players and also the same age as his son’s new QB. In fact, the elder Winfield actually once picked off Brady back in 2001.
“Tom Brady’s the GOAT,” Winfield said, adding he hadn’t heard the interception story from his dad yet.
“It’s going to be crazy when I see him in person, but he’s one of my favorite players. And it is crazy that my dad played against him. That’s wild for me to think about.”
The versatile safety said he wants to make a big impact as a rookie. With the Gophers, he became a unanimous All-America player this past season, leading the team with 88 tackles and seven interceptions. All that after returning from back-to-back season-ending injuries.
Those hamstring and foot injuries weren’t deterring prospective teams, according to NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. And while the 5-9, 203-pound defensive back didn’t go in the first round Thursday like some predicted, he said he doesn’t feel like that was because of his stature. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck called Winfield a “once in a decade” player who has it all.
“You’re getting a linebacker when he tackles, you’re getting a corner when he covers, you’re getting a wideout when he catches, and then you’re getting one of the most instinctual football players in college football,” Fleck said ahead of the draft. “So 10 years down the road, people are really going to kind of look back and say, ‘Boy, how did we miss on Antoine Winfield Jr.?’ ”
Winfield’s reaction to hearing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell call his name was one of the most exuberant ones so far. He jumped around his father’s living room, hugging his family and girlfriend. Since Winfield, one of 59 players invited to participate in the draft, couldn’t have the full Las Vegas experience with the show going virtual, his mother, Erniece Winfield, had planned to make the moment special by cooking some of her son’s favorites, such as banana pudding, apple pie and pot roast.
“Antoine just had this written over his life ever since he was a kid,” Erniece Winfield said earlier this week. “It was just his destiny to be a football player. Not that that identifies him as a person, but that is just his love. It is just his love. And there was no stopping him. … And I can’t wait to see how great he’s going to be on a professional level.”
Antoine Winfield Jr. noted how this was a strange draft process, with the coronavirus pandemic preventing many team visits or face-to-face meetings.
So good thing he already has firsthand experience with western Florida.
“I didn’t even know that was going to be my last game,” Winfield said of making his pro decision following the Outback Bowl. “… I just gave it my all.”
Turns out, that was just the first of many.