Underrated Vikings: Antoine Winfield

On Monday, we covered one underrated Viking — Jim Marshall — as part of a week-long series going over Vikings history to see if there are any players who have either been ignored by the national media or glossed over by fans.

Antoine Winfield always stood out to me as a player that never received the praise he earned — the rare cornerback who was so good at defending the run, that it was simply assumed that he was merely “OK” in coverage.

Statistically, Winfield’s run contributions were similar to that of a linebacker’s. That’s not an exaggeration — he wasn’t a good run defender “for a cornerback,” he was typically one of the best weapons against the run a defense could have. In his nine most productive tackle seasons, for example, he averaged 5.3 solo tackles per game. Chad Greenway, a tackle machine, produced 5.2 solo tackles per game in his nine most productive seasons.

Of course, not all tackles are good; generating those tackle numbers after giving up a play in coverage would be a significant problem. Using NFL’s NFL Game Statistics and Information System (NFLGSIS), one can isolate tackles that occur solely in the run game. Since Winfield started regularly for the Bills in 2001, Winfield ranked second among cornerbacks in run-game only solo tackles per season, with 20.1.

When isolated to per-game statistics, Winfield performs even better — leading cornerbacks in tackles per game, tackles-for-loss-per-game and ranking second in run-only solo tackles-per-game. The one player who comes close is Ronde Barber, who many might have expected.

Barber gets much more national play for having a reputation as a run-defending cornerbacks despite the fact that Winfield might have an equal or better claim to the title. Once we account for the quality of tackles, Winfield really stands out from the crowd. We can do this by measuring something called “stops.”

Football Outsiders defines “stops” thusly:

Stop Rate is defined as the percentage of a players Plays that were Stops. Plays are any time a player shows up in the play-by-play on defense: tackles, assists, forced fumbles, etc. Stops are plays that stop the offense short of what FO considers a successful play: 45 percent of yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down.

Pro Football Focus defines them somewhat similarly:

Stops are what we judge to be tackles that prevent an offensive success (defined as gaining 40% of required yardage on first down, 60% on second down, and the entire required yardage on third or fourth) and making more of them per run defense snap will bump you on this list.

For data between 2001 and 2012, we can use FO’s list, and just to make sure everything checks out, we’ll reinforce them by looking at Pro Football Focus numbers between 2008 and 2012 — 2008 being the most recent cornerback stop data I have available to me.

Winfield leads in PFF’s stops per game metric and comes in second to Barber in FO’s metric. In Football Outsiders’ measure, the two of them sit a tier above every other player. In PFF’s measure, Winfield stands alone.

All of this serves to underscore what we already know: Winfield has either been the best or second-best run defending cornerback of his era. But that reputation somehow has undercut the perception of his coverage capability — his true talent at which has proven to be excellent among his peers.

We can look at it a few ways: success rate in coverage as determined by Football Outsiders, yards per attempt thrown at as measured by Football Outsiders and yards per attempt thrown at as measured by Pro Football Focus. We can also look at PFF coverage grades per game.

Simply looking at yards per target allowed shows us quite a bit. When compared to cornerbacks with multiple Pro Bowls, Winfield’s coverage is stunning. By PFF’s measure, he ranks second behind Darrelle Revis. By FO’s, he ranks third behind Revis and Asante Samuel.

When looking at coverage grades or success rate, Winfield doesn’t come out quite as sterling, but ends up doing well — he ranks fifth in grade per game (2008-12) and seventh in success rate (2005-12). He outperforms Antonio Cromartie, Patrick Peterson, Charles Tillman and many more — including, notably, Barber. On average, Barber ranks 17th among those corners in those metrics, as well as 15th in the YPA metrics.

Unfortunately, Winfield wasn’t a ball hawk and that keeps him out of the conversation among elite players at the position. He also, however, didn’t give up many touchdowns either — unlike other interception machines. If a player is deficient at creating opportunities to score, they might make up for it by preventing the opponent from scoring themselves.

One can measure the relative value of interceptions and touchdowns allowed through “adjusted yards,” which uses the historical relationship between those measures and wins to assign negative 45 yards to the value of an interception and positive 20 yards to that of a touchdown. Once added to yards, it gives a more complete measure of passing play. For a quarterback, a higher number is better. For a cornerback, lower is ideal.

Among his Pro Bowl peers, Winfield ranked fourth in the metric, behind Revis, Charles Woodson and Samuel.

When Pro Football Focus put out their five-year retrospective on cornerbacks, Winfield ended up with the fifth-best coverage grade of any cornerback over a five-year period, behind Revis, Woodson, Brandon Flowers and Champ Bailey.

Combining that score with his grade against the run, and Winfield ends up with the No. 1 overall grade of any cornerback.

Not only that, he blew Revis, Woodson and Bailey out of the water. PFF has twice noted that Winfield ended up with the top score in their individual year grades, once in 2010 and once more in 2012. In 2012, they also noted that he hadn’t given up one touchdown in coverage in the three prior years of play.

PFF’s 2010 piece on Winfield centers on a word that’s the theme of this series — underrated. Here’s what Sam Monson said:

How often do you hear Antoine Winfield’s name mentioned in the discussion of top cornerbacks in the league? He might be one of the most underrated players around, and he seems to be defying the laws of ageing by only getting better, playing his finest football over the past two seasons.

Sure, everybody loves to talk about him as the best tackling corner in the league, and announcers get a few minutes out of that every time Winfield makes his first play in the run game, but what if I was to tell you that Winfield was the best corner in the league in 2010? You’d think I was crazy, right?

That’s the level I’m talking about when I tell you he’s underrated: His 2010 season wasn’t just good, it was arguably the best season of any CB in the league – have you heard anybody talk about it in those terms?

Winfield wasn’t an “OK” coverage player; he deserved multiple Pro Bowls on his coverage capability alone, and supplements that with being one of the best run-stopping cornerbacks in NFL history. That probably deserves more Hall of Fame consideration than everyone’s run-stopping cornerback du jour, Barber, or the one that Mike Tanier picked for his list of the most underrated NFL players in history: Louis Wright. Tanier’s description of Wright sounds much like Winfield himself.

He was an All-Pro for the Orange Crush defenses of the 1970s, and then he stuck around to play for the 1986 Broncos Super Bowl team. The 6’2″ Wright was renowned as a run-stuffing cornerback — that’s him tackling Walter Payton in the photo — but he also intercepted 26 career passes, even though opposing quarterbacks spent much of his career avoiding him.

While Winfield didn’t earn All-Pro consideration, he probably should have and was a big part of the Vikings’ stingy defenses in the mid-2000s. Winfield probably deserved to make Tanier’s list and almost certainly will continue be one of the most underrated Vikings of all time.

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