Everyone loves the “best player available” approach when it comes to the NFL draft.
Just take the best guy on the board, right? If you consistently drafted the most talented players available, regardless of what your current (short-term) needs might be, you’ll eventually have a healthy, balanced, talented team year-in and year-out.
In theory, that’s the goal—throw in a free agency strategy where you’re acquiring depth and potential starters so you can afford to pick BPA as much as possible and you’re good to go. But team building often gets messier than that. Remember, there are 31 other teams in the league who are all trying to build the best teams they can, too.
That’s why you often see teams use their top picks in the draft on not only players they believe are talented enough to succeed in the league, but also talented enough to succeed early. This comes in the form of addressing needs and filling roster holes.
In general terms, you would like for your first-round pick to have a pretty high hit rate and would also like them to at the very least be in a consistent contributing rotation for their position in their first season. For Day 2 picks, you’re hoping you can get some spot starting throughout their rookie years. And as for Day 3 prospects, well, you’re just hoping you can hit the jackpot on one of them to be a starter—the rest you hope to be the backbone of your depth chart.
As stated before, Day 2 picks are no guarantee to be contributors right out of the gate. In some instances they are, but for the most part, those guys (like many) need some time to get their feet wet and really get some confidence in them to allow their skill sets to shine the brightest.
If that’s true, someone forgot to tell Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
Winfield was the No. 45 overall pick in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Buccaneers. The team had safeties Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards already with experience on the roster, and they were still hopeful that Justin Evans could recover from injury. But Winfield Jr. was a guy they loved, so even though it wasn’t a position of the highest need, they took their shot on him and a potentially high ceiling.
Boy, has he already made them look like geniuses.
With Evans still out, Winfield found his opening to the starting lineup in camp. Since then he hasn’t just opened that door, he’s kicked that sucker wide open. Two games into his NFL career and there are only two players who have played more defensive snaps than Winfield, that would be the two starting linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White. Winfield played in 100% of the team’s defensive snaps in Week 1 against the Saints and played 99% of the team’s defensive snaps in Week 2 against Carolina.
The reason? A familiar phrase we heard about Winfield since training camp kicked off: he doesn’t play like a rookie.
Now, I will push back on that phrase a little bit. Winfield does still play like a rookie, at times, and we will highlight that here in this little breakdown. But there are certainly snaps and tendencies where Winfield displays a level of knowledge and confidence that are well beyond his years.
The play above was Winfield’s best play of the day against Carolina. In it, he came screaming off the edge as an extra blitzer (something defensive coordinator Todd Bowles asked him to do many times this past Sunday). Winfield was initially picked up by the running back in pass protection, but he was so strong to the punch he knocked the back off balance, was able to rip off the block, then punch the ball out from the quarterback Teddy Bridgewater as he was climbing the pocket.
That was some incredible speed, strength, and effort from the young safety to force the first turnover of his career.
Later in the game, Winfield once again made his presence known, this time in a way the box score will never tell you—but on tape, it’s clear as day.
Winfield was once again asked to crash the pocket coming off the edge. He didn’t quite make it to the quarterback, but the speed at which he was able to burst out of his stance and into the face of Bridgewater is what forced that quick, inaccurate throw.
This is the main component I would point to when explaining how Winfield doesn’t play like a rookie.
Rookies have a lot on their plate. They’re learning a new playbook, playing in a new defense, and trying to digest terminology from coaching tactics they are not used to. They’re trying to acquire chemistry with their new teammates and acclimate themselves to NFL speed. All of this while still trying to go out and get the most of their own abilities.
This is why you often see rookies not playing as fast as you saw them play in college; they’re thinking too much. But it’s hard to blame them. That’s why these things often take time. But for Winfield, that football background of being the son of the 14-year NFL veteran defensive back Antoine Winfield Sr. is showing up on screen in the form of there being no hesitation or reservation when Winfield puts his foot in the ground.
Winfield is also a fantastic tackler. He was lined up on the outside at the bottom of your screen in the clip above, and in front of him on the other side of the line of scrimmage was the Panthers’ best offensive weapon, Christian McCaffrey.
It was a 3rd-and-7, and the Panthers had to convert to keep the drive alive. When you look at that play pre-snap, it looked like Winfield was giving the shifty McCaffrey way too much space for a possible catch and run. But when McCaffrey broke on the ball, so did Winfield, and the result was him bringing McCaffrey down almost immediately after the catch, something few players, let alone rookies, ever do.
Winfield not playing like a rookie has to do with how quickly he can process and the speed at which he then goes to make the play. But there are still moments where Winfield reminds us that he is, in fact, a rookie.
The play above was Winfield’s biggest mistake of the game. As we saw in previous clips, the Buccaneers had been asking Winfield to man the edge and crash down into the pocket throughout the game; he had much success doing so. But in the clip above, he got over-excited and it burned his team.
It was a 4th-and-2 play for the Panthers. As the EMLOS (End Man on the Line Of Scrimmage), Winfield had to keep contain. At least, that’s what it looks like from his alignment, and the alignment of the other players. Fellow safety Whitehead could have helped in the A gap if the quarterback would have kept the ball and run up the middle. Linebacker White had the B gap with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. That left Winfield to be the contain player on the outside. But his eyes got wide and he crashed too fast and too hard, allowing McCaffrey to receive the pitch and run into the end zone.
Sometimes the best play is not the one you yourself can make. Sometimes it’s about doing your job so the team around you can make the better play. That’s an early lesson for Winfield, but over the first two games of his career, the speed at which he’s processing and playing hint that his first year in the league will be more playmaking than lesson-taking.