MANKATO, Minn. — Antoine Winfield is entering his 14th NFL season at age 35 and is still considered, in many ways, the Minnesota Vikings’ top cornerback.
He’s certainly their most experienced. With 181 games under his belt, he leads a group of corners in which only Chris Carr has played more than three NFL seasons. The other 10 cornerbacks in training camp for Minnesota have a combined 14 years of experience and have played a total of 198 games.
Being surrounded by that type of inexperience could make Winfield feel old. In a training camp with Winfield for the first time though, new defensive coordinator Alan Williams doesn’t think his veteran cornerback got the message he’s getting older.
“I don’t think anybody told him that,” Williams said. “I don’t know if he’s aware of that, so you have to go check with him to see if he’s aware that he’s getting older because I looked at yesterday’s practice and there’s nothing that says he is slowing down or wearing down or whatever verbiage you want to use with that.”
Williams would like to keep Winfield looking that way. Williams acknowledged the Vikings would like to limit the number of snaps Winfield plays this season to keep him healthy and fresh, saying Winfield would be on a “pitch count.” The plan has been discussed, but there is no set number of snaps to help preserve Winfield.
“Early in the year we’re just coming up with a plan,” Winfield said. “No man can last 16 games. Who knows how many plays that will be. Depends on how I’m feeling midseason, late in the year. I’ll communicate with them, let them know and we’ll come up with something.”
Winfield is supportive of the idea.
“This is a young man’s game,” Winfield said. “I’m trying to run out here and keep up with them. It’s hard to do that.”
Winfield acknowledges he’s got a lot of tread on his tires from 13 years in the league, the last eight with Minnesota. Along the way, the 5-foot-9 Winfield has started to suffer from the injuries that come with playing a big man’s game.
Winfield has missed significant time in two of the past three seasons with injuries. A foot injury caused him to miss six games in 2009. Last year, a neck injury forced him out for four games. When he returned in Week 9, he suffered a broken collarbone and his season was finished. Balancing the number of snaps Winfield plays while improving a secondary that crumbled last season due to injuries will be tricky.
“Antoine is a technician and the body is not going to stay young forever, so he can rely on his years of experience to play and play well and we realize that there are only so many reps that a body has so we want to be smart about how we use him, about how we play him,” Williams said. “Some of that is going to be how fast some of our younger guys or some of the guys that we brought in come up to speed. That’s yet to be determined, but we do know that he’s going to be on a pitch count. What that pitch count is, I don’t know yet.”
And Winfield has proven to still be effective when given healthy. In 2010, while playing all 16 games, he had 110 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions. Last season, in five games, he was limited to 42 tackles, one sack and one interception. While he’s never been a big player defined by his interception totals, he had one of the Vikings eight interceptions, which tied for the fewest in the league among teams.
The hope is some of the other cornerbacks can help lighten Winfield’s load. Chris Cook returns and is slotted in the starter opposite of Winfield. But he’s played 12 games in his two seasons. Carr is a veteran presence, which should help. The team also drafted Josh Robinson in the third round, though he’s been limited early in training camp with a hamstring injury. Williams knows he will have to be careful in using Winfield.
“I’d like to have him on the field all the time, but I just don’t know how many reps he will be able to get and how fast our young guys come along,’ Williams said. “If we get some young guys that progress well or some of the veterans that we brought in, Carr and (Zack) Bowman, those type of guys that, if they are up to speed and we feel like they’re doing well enough to step in and play, we’ll take some of the workload off of Antoine and put some of the workload on those guys.”
Winfield will also move inside to the slot position when Minnesota goes to its nickel or dime defensive packages. Playing inside could also ease the stress on Winfield’s legs and he expected to play more inside this late into his career, a spot he enjoys.
“Being in there, you’re pretty much playing like a linebacker, playing to my strengths, tackling and using my instincts,” Winfield said.
Maybe the thought of decreased snaps has led to a livelier Winfield this training camp. Instead of easing into training camp as one of the veterans on a young team, Winfield is surprising coaches with his energy.
“He really seems to be into this training camp more than any other,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “You see him out there taking 1-on-1s, taking all the reps. In year’s past, he’d always be kind of getting himself ready for the season in a different way. He’s taking all the reps. He’s doing everything he can to be ready. We’ll have to monitor that a little bit. He’s not 22 years of age anymore, but he’s definitely invigorated in a lot of ways.