EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Antoine Winfield flashed his typical smile while walking off the Minnesota Vikings’ practice field at Winter Park last week, seemingly happy to be back on the field after missing the end of last year due to a broken collarbone.
Winfield’s return to the field for Minnesota is a bit earlier this season, but not because of any injury. The 5-foot-9 cornerback, who turns 35 this month, admittedly has often passed on the voluntary portion of the Vikings’ offseason. Like many other veteran players, Winfield would do much of his offseason training at home, before coming north for mandatory minicamp and training camp.
Minnesota has entered recent seasons feeling good about the strength of
their secondary only to change on the fly due to injuries. Winfield
missed four games last year with a neck injury, only to break his
collarbone in his first game back and miss the final seven weeks.
Things have changed though. Winfield and other veterans are in town,
making the most of the offseason and trying to change the direction of a
team that has faded from the NFL spotlight.
Winfield also had other reasons to come to Minnesota early.
“This is Year 14 for me; I need the work, too,” Winfield said. “It’s hard to stay away and stay in shape and go against receivers. But when you’re up here with your teammates, getting that team chemistry, I think that’s what we need.”
Winfield returns to a very different looking Vikings secondary that was overhauled after finishing 26th against the pass last season, despite the defense leading the league in sacks. Winfield’s health and leadership will be needed for a defensive backfield that could have three new starters. Cornerback Cedric Griffin was released; replaced in the starting lineup by Chris Cook. Harrison Smith was drafted in the first round and will likely be one starter at safety. Holdover Jamarca Sanford will have to fend off a challenge from fifth-round pick Robert Blanton to stay in the starting lineup.
Behind Winfield and Cook — who is also returning after missing 10 games last season — are free-agent additions Zack Bowman and Chris Carr and third-round draft pick Josh Robinson. Adding to the turnover is the unexpected retirement of cornerback Asher Allen.
“I’m excited,” Winfield said of his new teammates. “A lot of new faces, a lot of guys with talent, a lot of young guys that are going to get out here and compete. Competition makes everyone better.”
Frazier hopes his rebuilt secondary will be able to handle the task — and stay together — and Winfield is a big part. Winfield is the veteran leader. The coaches will rely on him and he knows the new players will look to him as well. He wants to share his knowledge of the defense to help prepare the younger players, which is one reason he is at these OTAs.
“I’m sure the young guys will have a lot of questions,” Winfield said. “My door is open. My phone is available. They call me, I will help them with anything.”
More importantly, Winfield says he’s completely healed from both injuries last season. He has two years left on his contract, but at this point in his career he acknowledges he’s “year to year.”
Injuries have caused the Vikings to shift the way they wanted to play defensively.
look at the way we’ve been depleted the last couple of years in the
secondary we ended up playing a lot more zone than we want to,” coach
Leslie Frazier said at the draft. “We’d like to be able to get back to
where we can match up on the outside and do some other things. But when
we were our best that’s what we did. We were more balanced than we have
been in the last couple of years. But the situation has dictated that
and it’s not what we want to be able to do.”
Winfield said going through what appears to be a rebuilding job with the Vikings isn’t an issue for him. For now, he feels good. He’s excited to play alongside his new teammates in the secondary, flashing that smile all along the way.
“I love the game of football,” Winfield said. “I’m going to continue to play for as long as I can play. The goal every year is to win a Super Bowl. True enough we have a young team, a lot of young guys. We’re unproven. So, we don’t know what to expect. But guys are going to come in, work hard and fight to get better each day.”