Tuesday, June 18, 2024

How Bucs’ Antoine Winfield Jr. manifested being the highest-paid DB in NFL history

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TAMPA, Fla. — On a sweltering Saturday morning one year to the day before Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. inked his record-setting four-year, $84.1 million contract, he laid out how his next 12 months would go — and nearly every facet of that premonition came true.

It was May 20, 2023, and his fiancée, Teesa Mpagi, who had been leading his drills and whom he calls “the best DBs coach in Tampa,” grabbed her phone and started recording. These training sessions had become routine for Winfield ever since he was a little boy longing to follow in his father Antoine Winfield Sr.’s footsteps to the NFL.

“I want 10 [takeaways]. I want All-Pro. Pro Bowl. Super Bowl. I want it all,” Winfield proclaimed for himself in the video.

“And the final goal?” she asked.

“Highest paid,” he said. “Highest paid this year. Mark my words. I’m going to come back to this video and be like, ‘I did it.’ I’ll probably shed a tear because on this work that we put there right now, we’re going to make it happen. … The power of the tongue. You’ve got to speak it into existence. All-Pro, highest paid. All-Pro, highest paid. All-Pro, highest paid. And eventually it’s going to become reality.”

Winfield held onto that video for safekeeping, only releasing it last week. And sure enough, exactly one year after it was filmed, May 20 marked the day that he became not only the highest-paid safety in the league, but the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history. He also becomes the first safety to be the highest-paid defensive back in the league.

“My goal coming in was to be the highest-paid safety,” Winfield said with a smile. “And then my agent [David Mulugheta] called, and when he went over the details, I was like, ‘Wow.'”

The Bucs may have fallen short on Winfield’s proclamation about the Super Bowl — they lost to the Detroit Lions in the divisional round of the playoffs — but individually, Winfield exceeded the 10 takeaways (13) and had a league-high 6 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 3 interceptions. He also had 6 sacks, 76 solo tackles (122 combined), 12 passes defensed, 6 tackles for a loss and 8 quarterback hits.

Despite being what some would call a Pro Bowl snub, he earned the distinction of being named first-team All-Pro, and he also finished sixth in voting for Defensive Player of the Year. And now he has gotten to cash in.

“One of the best seasons I’ve seen the safety have as an all-around player, and it wasn’t just in the game, it was in practice, as well,” coach Todd Bowles said. “He was the only guy — even if we were practicing red zone — if he picked the ball off at the 5-[yard line], he’s going to run 95 yards and go back in the game. He’s not going to take himself out and go to the water buckets. If he picked it off in the end zone, he ran 100 yards wherever he picked the ball off at or caused the fumble at, he transferred practice to the game.”


WINFIELD LEARNED ABOUT manifestation from his father, a Jim Thorpe Award winner at Ohio State who went on to become a first-round draft pick by the Bills in 1999.

“You’ve got to have that vision first, and then you’ve got to have a plan and put the work in for that to actually come to fruition,” the younger Winfield said.

In 2007, a 9-year-old Winfield climbed into bed with his father as he studied film on a portable DVD player. The Lions had a rookie wide receiver who had turned in jaw-dropping numbers at the NFL combine and his pro day months before. Winfield would meet him for the first time in Week 2.

“I remember going up asking what he was doing, and he was just like, ‘Yeah, I [have] Calvin Johnson this week, so we’re trying to figure out how to stop him.’ Then he was just going over like what he was supposed to do on certain plays and how he was supposed to shut him down. So, that’s one of the earlier memories that I have.”

Winfield Jr. still marvels at what seemed like an impossible task.

“He’s [6-foot-5], 230 [pounds] running [a] 4.30 [40-yard dash time], and my dad’s 5-9, 185,” Winfield, who’s 5-9 and 203 pounds, said. “It’s a huge mismatch trying to cover guys like that. And I would say the same thing about him, and that’s just kind of something that I learned from him. He wasn’t the biggest, he wasn’t the fastest, but he was so smart at the game, and that’s what it took to have a 14-year career.”

The Vikings held Johnson to four catches on 10 targets, 61 receiving yards and 1 touchdown that day, and then one catch on three targets for 17 yards in Week 13 that season.

“I grew up underneath him, and I always wanted to play in the league,” Winfield said. “It’s always been a dream of mine, and as early as I can remember, I would see him outside doing ladder drills, and I’m like, ‘I [have] to get out here and get some work in with him,’ and I’m young. I’m probably like 5 or 6 years old outside doing ladder drills — not sure what I’m really doing, but I’m out here following him, so I must be doing something right.

“He taught me a lot and he’s one of the reasons why I’m here today. I really just lean on him and ask him all the questions. He [has] the blueprint. He did it already, you know.”

Those sessions with his dad continued all the way through Winfield joining the NFL and still happen today. Only now, they’re done over video calls. And each time Winfield takes the field in a practice session, he’s visualizing what he hopes will happen, although he still manages to surprise himself when it actually does — such as the DJ Chark Jr. fumble he forced in the back of the end zone in January against the Carolina Panthers to keep the Bucs’ playoff hopes alive in the season finale.

“I find myself having that reaction a lot, like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that happened,'” Winfield said. “But I train like that, you know — I kind of put myself through those situations and then when it happens, it’s like, ‘Wow, I did it,’ but it’s because, like, I’ve worked, and I’ve seen it already, and I’ve played it 1,000 times in my head.”

Same thing against the New Orleans Saints his rookie season in the 2020 NFC divisional game when he punched the ball out of tight end Jared Cook‘s hands, with inside linebacker Devin White recovering it at the Tampa Bay 42-yard line with 4:41 to go in the third quarter. The Bucs were trailing 20-13, and the offense tied it up five plays later before taking the lead for good in the fourth quarter en route to a Super Bowl LV victory.

“I remember going into that game, it’s like, ‘This is our time now. We got to win this game.’ … Just looking back on it now — who knows what happens? But just I feel like that one play was probably the staple play in my career so far.”

He’s hoping for more of those impact plays, as is safeties coach Nick Rapone, who has been pestering him about more interceptions, believing he could have had at least six last season.

“I keep saying this every year and he gets mad at me, but because he does everything you can possibly think of, and I said, ‘Win, we got to get to a point where we’re getting seven, eight, interceptions a [season],” Rapone said. “[If] he gets seven, eight a [season], and he continues with everything else — wow. But he’s a complete player. I mean everybody knows that, and he’s a better person than he is player.”


WINFIELD’S SAFETY PARTNER Jordan Whitehead played alongside Winfield from 2020 to 2021 before signing with the New York Jets and then returning to Tampa this offseason.

“For him coming in as a rookie — and I was already here, seeing that, I can’t be more happier for him,” Whitehead said. “The guy he is, the leader he is, he deserves it. Everybody knows that. “

After his first season as a defensive captain last year, he hopes to take on an even bigger role as a leader in Tampa. The Bucs have not only drafted exceptionally well the past few years between Winfield and the next player lined up for a big paycheck, his 2020 draft mate, left tackle Tristan Wirfs, but they’ve managed to re-sign those players, sending a message to the younger guys that they’ll be rewarded.

The team views both players as indispensable cornerstones for the organization. The Bucs picked up Wirfs’ fifth-year option — something only first-round picks are eligible for — and he’ll play under that in 2024 if they cannot strike a new deal.

As for Winfield, he would have been a free agent this offseason since he was a second-round pick. The team gave him the franchise tag designation in March — which ensured he remained in Tampa through free agency and didn’t hit the open market, affording the Bucs more time to negotiate a long-term deal.

“I’m happy it happened, and I’m happy it happened with my friend,” Whitehead said. “It’s well-deserved. It motivates all of us.”

Winfield also hopes that perhaps he can inspire younger players around the league, such as those who may not fit the ideal measurables but can counter them with outstanding work and study habits, the way he has and the way his dad did too.

“I never gave up. I always just knew that good things are going to come out as long as I just kept my head down and continue to work hard,” Winfield said. “And that’s one thing you can’t take away from me. And that’s my work ethic.”

But similar to his dad, he knows what makes him the player that he is.

“I’m not the biggest, I’m not the fastest. I’m not the strongest, but mentally I’m ready to go out there and be a dog.”

He has prepared for this moment his whole life, but it’s through manifestation that he has seen things pay off in a way that maybe only he and those around him would have envisioned.

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