The Minnesota Vikings released Antoine Winfield into free agency this month, and it sparked a wave of people taking a look at the PFF rankings and getting excited, seeing Winfield at the top of the list for 2012.
Winfield finished the season with a +25.5 grade, narrowly edging Richard Sherman (+25.1) to the top spot in our CB rankings, but that’s only part of the story. If you look purely at coverage, Sherman’s grade (+26.4) is almost four times higher than Winfield’s (+7.0), and there is no doubt that Sherman was the superior player in that regard last season.
He may have been atop the overall grade rankings among cornerbacks, but nobody at PFF will try and tell you that Antoine Winfield was the best corner in football last season.
That being said, his grade was impressive for a player of his age and, perhaps most notably of all, he graded positively across the board in every area we analyze for the position. Though he may not have been able to touch the top corners when it came to coverage alone, he still ranked inside the Top 20 in that area and teamed with it an ability that is completely unmatched by his cornerback peers — his play against the run and the short passing game.
Against the run Winfield’s grade was almost twice as good as any other corner. On the season he made 44 stops (tackles that constitute an offensive failure), which was a dozen more than the next best player. Of those stops, 26 were in the run game, logging one on 7.3% of his run snaps, again the top mark by a corner by some distance and one that is actually closer to the norm for linebackers than it is among corners.
He has an unrivaled ability to read and react to runs or short screens and passes to his side of the field, practically removing them as a viable option for the offense he faces. At his best, Darrelle Revis can take one receiver out of the game, but rarely does he make a huge impact against the run or on quick screens to other receivers on the same side of the formation. Winfield won’t take away a receiver the way Revis or Sherman can, but he can virtually take away an entire side of the field when it comes to the run game or bubble screens and other tricky plays such as end-arounds or reverses.
It took him about seven minutes of game time in 2012 to make an impact with a play that typifies this ability. Against Jacksonville in Week 1 he was lined up in the slot, covering Justin Blackmon. At the snap he was around 4 yards off the line of scrimmage and the Jaguars ran a toss play to his side. Blackmon cracked inside to take OLB Erin Henderson, leaving Winfield to be picked up by the pulling tackle, Cameron Bradfield. This is usually ‘game over’ for a defensive back, with the best he can hope for usually being to collapse in a heap and hope he blocks the point of attack with the mess he causes — but Winfield has the ability to go under and around pulling linemen like no other DB.
He met Bradfield a yard deep in the backfield, was able to knife under the attempted block, forced the runner to cut back toward pursuing defenders, and was still able to leap back up and get a piece of the tackle, stuffing the play for a loss.
As I mentioned before, this skill isn’t just confined to the run game, but his speed in reading and reacting to plays allows him to jack any number of offensive staples and destroy them in the backfield.
One week later against the Colts, he showed the impact he can have on this kind of play when Indianapolis tried to get the ball in the hands of Donnie Avery in space on a bubble screen. With the outside corner playing around 8 yards off, there was space to be exploited, but from the slot Winfield immediately read the play when the receiver he was covering looked to block and beat the pulling lineman to the spot, tackling Avery behind the line of scrimmage before he had a chance to get going for yardage that was definitely there otherwise.
These plays weren’t isolated occurrences either — this is Antoine Winfield’s specialty, this is what he does.
Teams looking at Winfield now shouldn’t be fooled by his age and relative lack of coverage skills compared to the elite corners in the league. Winfield has shown he can still play outside and cover well, allowing just 9.6 yards per reception on the 60 catches he gave up, and not allowing a touchdown or catch longer than 41 yards all season, but what he brings to a team and a defense goes far beyond that.
From outside or in the slot Winfield can set the tone for a defense, blowing up run and pass plays to his side for the kind of loss that inspires teammates and puts offenses behind the chains in a drive.
He may not be the best corner in the league — despite his overall PFF ranking — but there are things he can do that no other corner can. Even at 35 there should be a queue of teams lining up for his services. Maybe he won’t last many more years, but for 2013 (and perhaps beyond) Antoine Winfield will bring a unique set of skills that will make your defense better.
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