Vikings

Is Antoine Winfield Jr. an Alternative to Anthony Harris?

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson (USA Today Sports)

As the Minnesota Vikings offseason continues to unfold, it feels like the team is doing more to create holes on the roster as opposed to filling them. After seeing a large chunk of their starting defense get released and/or move on to greener pastures, the Vikings may have another hole developing with the contract status of Anthony Harris.

Harris was one of the top safeties in the league over the past two seasons grading fifth (2018) and third (2019) among all safeties according to Pro Football Focus. That type of performance should lead the team to pay one of their top players, but with money already invested in Harrison Smith and the Vikings facing a difficult salary cap situation, negotiating a long-term deal has become a problem.

With KSTP-TV’s Darren Wolfson reporting that a trade is “back on the table,” and Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot hearing the Vikings want a second or third-round pick in exchange for Harris, it’s not far fetched to wonder who his eventual replacement could be. In the minds of many Vikings fans, it could be Antoine Winfield Jr.

Vikings fans will immediately point out that Winfield’s father played in Minnesota from 2004-12. But that tenure was before the current regime of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer took over as general manager and head coach, meaning a nepotism pick probably isn’t going to happen.

But what Winfield brings to the table is a strong set of skills that could possibly replace Harris and give them a younger and cheaper alternative.

The first thing that comes to mind when talking about Winfield’s game is his ability to go get the football. Winfield led the Big Ten and was second in the nation with seven interceptions last season. While some came by some “right place at the right time” scenarios, his ability to shut down opposing team’s deep game was his ultimate strength.

According to Pro Football Focus, Winfield played 101 snaps in coverage and allowed just 138 yards. He also forced a pair of pass breakups to go along with his picks and plays a smart style that defensive coordinators will love. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert detailed this in a story reviewing Winfield’s draft stock by highlighting an interception against Penn State last November.

“The [Gophers] were sending a six-man blitz against Penn State, meaning Winfield would line up as a single-high safety. He understood his primary responsibility was to guard the post in the middle of the field. He recognized something else, though…Penn State’s star receiver, KJ Hamler, was lined up in the slot on third-and-9. Against single-high looks in those situations, Winfield recalled from film study, the Nittany Lions liked to throw a deep route to Hamler, who would fade toward the sideline and away from the safety. Quarterback Sean Clifford would throw the ball over Hamler’s outside shoulder, further guarding against a safety getting over to break up the pass, and often get a big play. So at the snap, Winfield sprinted away from the post and toward Hamler. Clifford’s pass was a bit short, but Winfield was already in position for an interception — his second of the game.”

The ability to understand routes like this helps Winfield be in position on most plays, but that means nothing if you can’t finish. Winfield does just that, using his 4.45-second 40-yard dash to attack ball carriers and wrap up. Much like his father used to do for the Vikings, Winfield made 18 run stops during the season (31st among safeties last season per PFF) and forced a pair of fumbles.

The qualities of a safety who can cover, attack the ball and tackle efficiently sounds a lot like Harris’ game. Harris led the NFL with seven interceptions but also finished second in tackling efficiency with 21 attempts per missed tackle behind his teammate Smith.

This begs the question of whether Spielman and Zimmer would actually draft a safety in the early rounds of the draft. Since Zimmer came aboard prior to the 2014 season, the Vikings have selected just two safeties in the NFL Draft in Marcus Epps (2019, sixth round) and Jayron Kearse (2016, seventh round).

Even more interesting is the way the Vikings have opted to fill their safety spots. Instead of drafting safeties to play the position, they’ve taken chances on players that played cornerback in college and tried to convert them as they acclimated to the pro game. While Antone Exum and Jack Tocho never made the leap, Harris got a head start, playing safety full-time during his junior year at Virginia and making the team as a UDFA in 2015.

There’s also the issue of Winfield’s size, which has many teams wondering if he’ll be big enough to make an impact in the NFL. At 5-foot-9, Winfield placed in the first percentile of prospects in this year’s class, but that may slide him into a role as a slot corner, where Winfield played 85 snaps with the Gophers last season.

Even if the Vikings switched Winfield into the slot, it would be a drastic shift in philosophy from how the team wanted to fill the position in years past. However, Winfield’s game hints that his lack of size might not matter and with Smith providing an all-around game next to him, it could mask his deficiencies.

This all depends on if the Vikings trade Harris and what they get in return. If they get a second-round pick, Winfield should be on the board. But with the Vikings’ issues at cornerback, it may be more beneficial to solve their gaping hole there. In the end, it all depends on what the Vikings want.

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Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson (USA Today Sports)

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