National Football League
Why Antoine Winfield Jr.’s record $84.1M deal for a DB makes sense to Bucs
National Football League

Why Antoine Winfield Jr.’s record $84.1M deal for a DB makes sense to Bucs

Published May. 14, 2024 10:05 a.m. ET

Antoine Winfield Jr. saw his future so clearly.

When the Bucs safety earned first-team All-Pro honors for the first time in January, he mentioned that he'd seen it coming, referencing a video he recorded after a spring workout last year in which he laid out all of his goals for the 2024 season.

On Monday, he posted that video on Instagram, and it shows the focus and confidence that he carried through last season. A shirtless Winfield, standing on a field on May 20, 2023, after a Saturday morning workout.

"Big season ahead. I think I'm the only one that sees it, but that's just how it's got to be right now ... highest-paid this year, mark my words," Winfield said. "I'm going to come back to this video, be like 'I did it.' Probably shed a tear ... We're going to make it happen. Power of the tongue. You have to speak it into existence. All-Pro, highest-paid. All-Pro, highest-paid. All-Pro, highest-paid. Eventually it's going to become reality. Stay tuned."


On Monday, the final piece of that vision came together, as Winfield and the Bucs agreed to a four-year extension that made him not only the highest-paid safety in NFL history, but the highest-paid defensive back. The contract will reportedly pay out $84.1 million over four years, which pushes him past the $21 million per year that Packers corner Jaire Alexander had gotten as the previous high per year for a defensive back. Winfield's extension includes $45 million fully guaranteed, also resetting that mark for a DB.

"He's a hell of a player," Bucs general manager Jason Licht said on "The Pat McAfee Show" last week. "I think he keeps on this trajectory, he's also somebody that could be mentioned Hall of Fame worthy. I'm not afraid to admit that. I don't think it's going to hurt negotiations. I've been upfront with him the whole time: He's the best safety in the league, and he should be paid like it."

When the Bucs drafted Winfield in 2020, they hadn't been to the playoffs in 12 seasons. They won a Super Bowl his rookie year, and the signature moment in the win over the Chiefs was Winfield giving Kansas City receiver Tyreek Hill the peace sign, a callback to when Hill had done the same as he scored a touchdown in a regular-season win against Tampa Bay. Winfield drew a flag — the only penalty he took his rookie year — and he regretted nothing.

"It felt amazing to be able to do that, not even going to lie," he said after the game.

Winfield won a Super Bowl that year, made the Pro Bowl his second year, but took his game to another level in 2023, making a versatile impact with a season few defensive backs have ever had. He led the league with six forced fumbles, recovered another four, finished with six sacks and three interceptions.

The circumstances of his big plays were even bigger. He hustled to force a fumble by Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder inside the 1-yard line in a game the Bucs ultimately lost. He came up with the most important play in their Week 18 win against Carolina to clinch a third straight division title. In a 9-0 win, the Bucs defense was never tested more than on a long pass play to receiver DJ Chark, and Winfield again forced a fumble inside the 1-yard line that Tampa Bay recovered.

After no playoffs in 12 years before Winfield, the Bucs have made it four years in a row, matching the longest streak in franchise history. This offseason has been all about Tampa Bay paying big to keep their core players, giving quarterback Baker Mayfield a three-year, $100 million extension, giving receiver Mike Evans two years and $41 million and bringing back linebacker Lavonte David for a 12th season. Winfield had been secured with a franchise tag that would have paid him $17.1 million, but this new deal replaces that. In the next four years, he'll make almost 10 times as much as the $8.7 million he made on his rookie contract.

Tackle Tristan Wirfs, drafted with Winfield in 2020, will be the next piece of that puzzle, also expected to reset the market for his position with a deal likely north of $110 million for four years.

Spending big on a tackle is the NFL norm, but the Bucs went against the grain with the Winfield deal. This is the first time ever that the league's highest-paid defensive back isn't a cornerback. But safety is a do-it-all weapon in Todd Bowles' defense, ranging from center-field deep coverage to being an active blitzer as evidenced by Winfield's six sacks.

Expect Baker Mayfield and the Bucs to be better next season?

The Bucs have shown they'll set their own positional priorities, sometimes outside the NFL's prescribed norms. They took a center in the first round last month in Duke's Graham Barton — that's a less than once-a-year occurrence, league wide — and used a third-round pick on Georgia's Tykee Smith, likely their nickel or slot corner, another traditionally undervalued position.

[Auman: Why a former 250-pound lacrosse player is Bucs’ future leader on offensive line]

Just as Wirfs was the fourth tackle taken in the 2020 draft, Winfield was the fourth safety taken the same year. The first three — the Giants' Xavier McKinney, the Patriots' Kyle Dugger and the Browns' Grant Delpit — don't have a Pro Bowl or first-team All-Pro nod between them, and Winfield has both.

If superb talent evaluation helped the Bucs to their success in the past four years, paying for that talent will make continuing that success a challenge. Winfield and Wirfs will each make more this coming season than they have in their careers, and Mayfield will make $30 million after getting just $7 million a year ago. Solid drafting will help control the salary cap, and the Bucs will likely field a team that has at least 20 of their own draft picks starting on offense and defense, potentially with Mayfield as the lone exception.

If Evans and David are the veteran leaders who stuck with Tampa Bay through the lean years of their youth, then Winfield and Wirfs lead the younger generation of Bucs who have known nothing but perennial playoff appearances since joining the league. Keeping that kind of talent around can be expensive, but the Bucs are confident they've invested in the right players.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports' NFC South reporter, covering the BuccaneersFalconsPanthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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