EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Antoine Winfield’s tenure with the Minnesota Vikings might be over after nine years with the team, but he’s still making an impact on his former squad.
Along with being Minnesota’s most reliable cornerback over the past nine seasons — Winfield was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Vikings — he was also the veteran leader among the secondary, a strong influence on young players and admired as much for his work ethic and leadership as his play on the field. Those intangible traits might be what Minnesota will miss most from Winfield.
Josh Robinson, entering his second season after being a third-round pick by the Vikings in 2012, is still learning from Winfield. Robinson, one of the team’s corners that will need to step up to fill Winfield’s void on the field, took to heart some of Winfield’s teachings and is working this offseason to improve on a lackluster rookie season.
“His study habits are superb,” Robinson said of Winfield. “He’s one that’s always been, ever since his rookie year, he said, he learned that he had to study better and he became a great player. He’s a great tackler, everyone knows that. His coverage skills are still there, even at 35.”
So Robinson, who is up against the same size differential at 5-foot-10, 199 pounds that Winfield (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) has overcome in his career, has been studying more. Winfield’s starting spot is up for grabs between Robinson, rookie first-rounder Xavier Rhodes and maybe A.J. Jefferson. With a year under his belt, Robinson is focusing on film study to be better prepared.
“Just from putting more time in,” Robinson said of how he’s preparing. “Having a plan, that’s something that I didn’t have last year. I didn’t have a plan of what I would do every week and that’s something I’m working on doing now.”
Robinson started six games in his rookie season and finished with 56 tackles, three pass deflections and two interceptions. One of the fastest players in his draft class, Robinson has the physical tools to develop into a full-time starter. But his playing time decreased towards the end of last season as he struggled.
Coaches left him with one major improvement needed from his rookie season: Consistency.
“That’s one thing coach was stressing with me this offseason: be consistent,” Robinson said. “I would have flashes of good plays and flashes of bad plays. But I need to be more consistent.”
So Robinson took to studying and improving his mental approach.
“My study habits, I could have did better last year,” Robinson said. “As a rookie, I was trying to get a feel for everything. And I think I got that, so I’m ready to study more and do more that I can to help this team.”
Robinson said he wasn’t overwhelmed playing in the NFL last season. But he couldn’t play with his natural instincts either.
“Really just trying to take in as much as possible, but trying to make sure I can still play fast and it kind had me thinking too much,” Robinson said. “I kind of got a lot of things under my belt, a lot of experience as a rookie. Hopefully I can add to it and do better this year.”
A starting spot is available after Winfield’s release and subsequent signing with the Seattle Seahawks, and maybe just as importantly, the pecking order behind starter Chris Cook is still undetermined. Rhodes was drafted with the talent and size to be a starter and match up against the big receivers in the NFC North.
But the nickel cornerback spot, where Winfield flourished in his later years, is just as important against the passing attacks in the North.
“We’ll move Xavier around a little bit but we think he’s primarily an outside guy,” coach Leslie Frazier said after the draft. “But we do think that Josh has that ability (to play inside). We know that Marcus [Sherels] has done it for us in the past, and we have some other guys we’re going to take a look at as well. Brandon Burton is another candidate, we’ve got some other guys on the roster who can potentially go in there and play the position.”
Robinson, who the Vikings were reluctant to play inside as a rookie, is hoping to learn some of Winfield’s technique in the slot, and finally give Minnesota a consistent, quality top three corners.
“That’s something we’ve always worked on, just to make sure I know it,” Robinson said of learning to play inside. “Just learning, same thing as last year. If I can get it, I can try to compete for that spot or compete for outside. Either one . . . more man techniques. You play more man when you’re in the slot. You’re really on an island, even though you’re on the inside.”
The Vikings will soon find out how much Robinson learned from Winfield.