The Seattle Seahawks have furthered their goal of starting a Scandinavian conclave in Renton, Washington by signing another former Viking in Antoine Winfield. Aside from building their own longboat, there's not much else Seattle can do to snipe the Minnesota Vikings, given that they now have one of the best.
What follows will now be a somewhat disorganized rant about how you don't understand how good of a player you really have. Winfield will probably retire as a legend for Vikings fans, and should retire as one of the most notable cornerbacks in history. That's no exaggeration—you have grabbed a historically powerful figure.
This is because at 5'9" and 180 pounds, you have not obtained a cornerback. You have merely found yourself with history's tiniest linebacker.
If you like, he may be best characterized as the world's best cover linebacker or the world's best run-stuffing corner. The difference is immaterial because you will never see the likes of Antoine Winfield again, so normal naming conventions are useless.
Much like Percy Harvin, it may be better to call him a "football player" than to pigeonhole him into one position.
While he may not be the best cover corner that the NFL has seen (although he's no slouch there), he ranks up there with Ronde Barber, Kevin Ross and Darrell Green as one of history's best tackling cornerbacks—if not the best.
Throughout NFL history, Winfield has had the most tackles per games started of corners with at least 100 starts with 6.12. That amounts to 98 tackles a season, which is an average for him but was only beaten by one player this year (Cortland Finnegan). In 2011, only Jason McCourty and Charles Tillman beat 98 tackles.
In 2009, no cornerback accumulated more than 98 tackles. In fact, since joining the Vikings in 2004, Winfield has been in rare territory. Having placed first among cornerbacks in tackles per game three times (2004, 2007 and 2011), Winfield has only finished outside of the top five once (in 2010), where he placed seventh. Otherwise he placed 2nd in 2012, 3rd in 2006, 4th in 2005 and 2008 and 5th in 2009 where only one corner above him on the list completed more than 12 games. That's three firsts, a second, a third, two fourths, a fifth and a seventh place finish.
Having consistently been a top three or top five finisher in tackles, Winfield has earned a well-deserved reputation for physicality and strength in the run game. That has given Winfield the distinction of being one of only five cornerbacks to have accumulated more than 1000 tackles, and only one of two players (Ronde Barber being the other) to have hit that mark since 1995.
Of all cornerbacks with at least 500 tackles, he has the second most tackles per game, behind Charles Tillman.
This isn't just opportunity knocking, either. Winfield didn't miss a single tackle in the run game in 2011, and ranks in the top ten consistently in most tackles made before missing one.
This all means, of course, that you can run your nickel defense without losing a step in the running game.
You can run your nickel defense without losing a step in the running game.
Your nickel defense will be one of the best run defenses in the game, because there's a good argument to be had that Winfield will do better against the run than at least one of the outside linebackers you carry. I'll start with statistical measures of his performance, then move on to more subjective evaluations in a "scouting report." From there, a quick nod to Seattle's schemes and how Winfield enhances or changes them.
Over the past three years, Winfield has developed a tackling efficiency of 15.8. That is, for every 15.8 tackles Winfield attempts, he will miss one. That's almost identical to Leroy Hill's last year (16.0) and is better than either of your outside linebackers over the past two years (K.J. Wright's efficiency was 13.7 and Leroy Hill's was 12.4).
In fact, Winfield's tackling efficiency would regularly rank in the top fifteen of outside linebackers... and inside linebackers. Last year, Bradie James placed 11th in tackling efficiency for all inside linebackers (remember, there are roughly 48 of them because of 4-3 and 3-4 defenses) with an efficiency of 15.7. Last year, DeMeco Ryans placed 12th with a tackling efficiency of 15.8.
But he's a cornerback. How many of these tackles are really positive tackles? If he merely allows a high number of pass completions, his tackle total will rack up.
I will go into his coverage ability soon, but a good way to measure this is to look at his stop percentage. That is, how many of his tackles have constituted a "loss" for the offense?
Pro Football Focus has a measure called run stop percentage that looks at the impact in the running game, but in order to really look at it, we'll look at all of Winfield's stops, not just those in the running game. It also allows us to penalize "bad tackles" in the passing game made as a result of poor coverage.
Before looking at the percentages, of course, it should be noted that Winfield had 44 stops. The next best corner, Dunta Robinson, had 32.
In the end, Winfield had the second highest stop percentage of any corner in the NFL, with 45.83% of his tackles either going for a very short gain or a loss. The one person above him, Chris Harris, only had 63 tackles and therefore only needed 29 stops to best Winfield's total.
In 2011, Winfield crushed the competition with a stop percentage of 61.16.
In four out of the past five years, he has ranked in the top two of stop percentage, something no other corner can say. In fact, in his "down year", he ranked in the top ten. Some of those years saw corners with only 19 tackles (like Danieal Manning) beat him in stop percentage, while he more than quintupled their total in tackles and tripled their total in stops. Not only does no other corner match this feat, no other corner comes close, with zero corners consistently finishing in the top five other than Winfield—only two cornerbacks appeared in the top five twice in the past five years.
It should too be noted that Winfield placed as PFF's highest-graded corner three times.
This compares favorably to your recent outside linebacker performances. In 2012, Leroy Hill's stop percentage was 48.89 and K.J. Wright's was 38.14. In 2011, K.J. Wright did better, with 60% of his 56 tackles constituting a loss, but Leroy Hill did about the same at 48.1.
If we only look at the running game, Winfield is just as dominant. He ranks as the top cornerback in run stop percentage in the last two years, and has placed in the top five every year that Pro Football Focus has kept track, including another first place finish in 2008 and a second place finish in 2009.
In 2012, his run stop percentage of 7.3% would be better than half of the league's outside linebackers. This includes Seattle's K.J. Wright (7.1%) and nearly equal's Leroy Hill's (7.4%). In 2011, he would have a top twenty finish, with his 6.7% being beaten out by K.J. Wright's 8.9% but not Leroy Hill's 6.5%.
I'll described his function against the run and how he does what he does more thoroughly in the subjective evaluation.
He's more than an able pass defender, as well. The worry with a corner that small is that he'll underperform against taller receivers. That doesn't happen to the be case, despite what teams have done to try and exploit that matchup.
This year when put up against receivers who were at least 6'1" and 200+ pounds, he was thrown at 20 times, allowed 12 receptions, 130 yards, 29 yards after the catch, zero touchdowns, 6.5 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 58.3. He grabbed one interception and deflected three of those passes.
For context, that made Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Jay Cutler and Josh Freeman look like Mark Sanchez and Brandon Weeden when throwing to Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall or Vincent Jackson. He makes them look even worse when including advanced metrics, like adjusted yards per attempt (The adjusted yards per attempt was 4.25, worse than any quarterback in the league). His tackling has also been an asset, where he's only allowed 2.4 yards after the catch per catch for these players.
That's not entirely fair, because it doesn't put into context all of the snaps that Winfield covered well enough to deter a throw entirely. He ranked 15th in the country in coverage snaps per target, and 6th in total yards allowed per snaps in coverage. Overall, when throwing to him, quarterbacks averaged a 70.4 passer rating, good for 15th in the country.
He was even better as a nickel back, ranking 6th in the country in coverage snaps per target.
There were only five cornerbacks in the NFL with over 500 snaps that didn't allow a single touchdown. Winfield was one of them. Of those five, he had the second most interceptions. That allowed him to be the 15th best cornerback in the NFL in passer rating allowed and 6th in adjusted yards per attempt allowed.
This isn't because he was only on the field as a slot corner or because he played in low-leverage situations; Winfield played 422 of his 1106 snaps in the slot, or merely 38 percent of them.
All of this is to say that Winfield isn't merely "average" for a cornerback in coverage. He isn't "good enough to make up for his run performance". He's one of the top cover corners in the country, a high-level performance overshadowed by his excellent work against the run.
A more subjective evaluation would agree.
Like any position on an NFL roster, the nickel cornerback has a very specific set of demands that won't best be met by simply putting the third best corner in the slot. Just as it would be a mistake for most schemes to substitute the Sam linebacker with a Will linebacker (although the Seahawks have been caring less and less about those distinctions), a nickel cornerback is not the consolation prize in a cornerback race.
Greg Cosell has tried to emphasize this point, using the far-too-easily condemned Eagles as an example:
Keep in mind teams also run three-wide groups in normal down and distance situations as a regular feature of their offense. What burden does that place on the defense, as it specifically relates to the slot corner? It means he has three responsibilities: cover man (the most apparent), blitzer and run defender (not talked about enough). Those are three distinct skill sets, but they are all required of a slot corner.
Think about that for a minute. It's not a filler position, simply employed because the offense lined up with three wide receivers. It's a well-defined position that is essential to NFL defense, and it demands a specific set of attributes. Look at the Philadelphia Eagles last season. They had three very good NFL corners: Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All three are perimeter corners. The Eagles believed they could put Rodgers-Cromartie and/or Asomugha in the slot, solely because they were athletically talented players. It doesn't work that way, so things didn't play out as the Eagles expected. Neither Rodgers-Cromartie nor Asomugha possessed the combination of traits necessary to play effectively in the slot, and it proved to be a primary contributing factor to the Eagles' struggles in 2011. As the Eagles now know, a slot corner is a key component to defensive success.
Cosell expanded on this concept when he opined about the evolving nature of the NFL and how defenses should counter.
Matching up to wide receivers is much more comfortable schematically. Defensive coaches have been doing that for years. Now they have a new set of challenges: tight ends and backs who can stress the defense both to the outside and vertically. What will be the response in the continuing chess match between offense and defense? Traditional linebackers will find their roles - and snaps - significantly reduced. There will not be a place for them against offenses that feature five receivers with multi-dimensional abilities to attack all areas of the field. We will likely see more teams employ the Houston Texans' model. They played dime (six defensive backs), not nickel. That allowed them to field better athletes with more scheme versatility and greater body flexibility and agility to play in space, i.e., coverage. It was not an accident Houston had one of the best defenses in the NFL last season.
Here's the reality of the NFL with the 2012 season right around the corner: It's much more of a spread game than it's ever been.
Andy Benoit of the New York Times' Fifth Down Blog had similar things to say, given the increasing reliance on spread concepts, the emphasis on matchups and versatility:
Very few corners are good enough to handle N.F.L. wideouts man-to-man on an everydown basis (if more were, guys like Darrelle Revis wouldn't make around a million bucks a game). And man-to-man cornerbacks can't always combat things like presnap motion or intertwined route combinations - offensive tactics that are growing in union with the expanding variety of three-plus receiver formations. What's more, as we covered in the running back/tight end evolution analysis Tuesday, defenses are going to have to find a way to stop the run out of nickel personnel anyway. The third corner has already replaced the third linebacker as a de facto starter, as a majority of N.F.L. snaps now involve three or more wide receivers.
The easiest - and therefore most plausible - counter to the offensive evolution is to find more versatile defensive players inside. Someone has to be able to run with super athletic tight ends, handle the quickness of smallish slot receivers and stay with a running back no matter where that running back goes.
And finally, Matt Bowen at the National Football Post highlighted why nickel corners are as important as "starters" and what you might need in them:
the Nickel corner-a position that is vital to winning vs. pro offenses.
Here are five things you need to get consistently from your Nickel corner...
1. Tackling: I talked about tackling drills during training camp this past weekend because it is still the No.1 defensive technique in football. And you need a Nickel that will hit, wrap up in the run game and limit yards after the catch. Think of the one-back runs from Posse personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB) or the quick inside option route (or Hi-Lo concept). You must tackle to play inside at the Nickel position.
2. Blitz technique: It doesn't matter if we are breaking down Rex Ryan's multiple schemes with the Jets or Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 defense. As a Nickel, you will be involved in the blitz front (both zone and man concepts). Blitzing is a technique. No different than learning the base skills in off-man, there are keys to winning on the edge, defeating a back in protection or setting up the OT.
3. Defending the two-way go: As a Nickel, you have to show the ability to win vs. a "two-way go." Think of a slot receiver that can release inside or outside and work off your leverage. I played with plenty of CBs that couldn't make the move inside because of this exact reason. You need great footwork, the ability to maintain leverage, press-coverage skills, etc. Tough job.
4. Ball skills: The Nickel will be in a position to make plays on the ball. Look at Cover 2, Cover 3, playing the seam-flat in zone-blitz concept or driving to the ball in the 3-step game. You want a playmaker inside that can finish and create turnovers-because there will be opportunities.
5. Special teams ability: The majority of Nickel corners can be considered "starters" because of the amount of time defenses put their sub packages on the field. However, if this is your No.3 CB, they must play a role on special teams. At the gunner position, covering kickoffs, playing the "jammer' on punt return and blocking on the front line on kickoff return. They need to be productive contributors on all four core kicking units.
I would also add that because so many older defensive backs are switching to nickel/safety roles (see: Charles Woodson and Ronde Barber, also some of the best tacklers among cornerbacks), that leadership is a vital component to what the Seahawks may be looking for. We'll touch on everything in Bowen's list, as it accords well with Cosell's list. Because Winfield will want (and is contracted to) limited snaps, we'll substitute the fifth requirement of special teams ability with the leadership component.
Much, much more importantly, Seattle is in a division with incredible slot receivers. St. Louis is sporting both Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, while San Francisco has playoff darling Anquan Boldin. Very different type of receivers that require different types of approaches to defeat. Andre Roberts isn't a slouch either.
Naturally, at 5'9" and 180 pounds, Winfield hangs his hat on his instincts and intelligence, both of which are at an elite level. Sometimes it seems as if he has eyes in the back of his head as he reacts to the ball in the air, closing in on the receiver or the ball often before the receiver sees the ball coming. Not only does Winfield read a quarterback's eyes well, he reads the play well.
That is, as a student of the game, Winfield recognizes what tendencies offensive coordinators and quarterbacks have in a number of situations, and he knows when to gamble on them. His recognition and ease of understanding of the numerous offensive concepts give him a big advantage over receivers, and he'll often recognize the route before the snap. The Vikings have even found ways to exploit this ability even more, breaking their normally staid and conservative defense to include pattern-matching concepts, a type of zone coverage the NFL is seeing more of because of its obvious advantages and one that Alabama employs with regularity. I will let Chris Brown of Smart Football explain:
More significant, however, is that Saban focuses a lot of his teaching on pattern reading within his zone drops. The two zone-dropping schools of thought are to teach spot drops or pattern reading. One can overemphasize the distinction, but, generally, spot dropping was the traditional approach. In this technique, if your outside linebacker was responsible for the weak flat, he would essentially (there is slightly more to it), upon identifying pass, run to a spot on the field and then simply react to the quarterbacks eyes and the flight of the ball. A big advantage with spot dropping is that it is easy to teach: if you spend hours with your run-stuffing linebacker on how to attack run plays, you can teach him pass defense in a matter of minutes. But the weakness is that well-coached receivers can become excellent at settling in the holes in the zones between defenders. And, with good receivers and good quarterbacks, modern offenses have become more and more adept at finding and exploiting these open spaces.
Pattern reading, on the other hand, is much like a matchup zone in basketball. Defenders are responsible for zones, but they play tight to the receivers who come through those zones. Moreover, pattern-read teams begin by immediately coaching their defenders on how to recognize popular pass route combinations (and indeed, the very concept of pass combinations themselves) and each week zero in on the five to fifteen most common pass concepts they will see from that opponent. When performed correctly, pattern-reading defenders know exactly how to cover receivers in their zones and seamlessly (in a quite literal sense) pass the receivers onto other defenders as they run their routes. Saban further distinguishes his defenses in that he uses pattern reading in almost all of his coverages, including the traditional Cover 3 or three-deep coverage, whereas many coaches only let certain defenders pattern read or only use it with certain defenses. Instead, Saban demands perfection and has no qualms about spending the grinding hours working on the finer details to make it happen. Sounds a lot like Belichick, no? There's a reason both of them win a lot of championships.
That's from his book The Essential Smart Football, perhaps one of the best reads out there for football concepts.
That pattern match zone defense was rarely employed by the Vikings, although they used it to great effect to neutralize the high-powered passing offenses of the Detroit Lions. In Week 4, the Lions threw 58% at 6.3 yards per attempt, despite Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford's best attempts. When the Lions tried to exploit their size advantage with Johnson over Winfield, he allowed Johnson only one catch on three targets for 19 yards.
When asked to slow down Brandon Marshall, the Vikings used pattern matching to hold Jay Cutler to 6.1 yards per attempt, even though they allowed Cutler to complete 74% of his passes. Finishing with 188 yards was not in the Bears' plans that night. In their later meeting, the Vikings reduced the Bears to 50% and 5.9 yards per attempt. When Marshall and Winfield met, Winfiwld allowed only 53 yards on 7 targets, with an interception, to boot.
And of course, no touchdowns—again, he allowed zero touchdowns for the year against any receiver.
It's a good concept that is very difficult to employ, because it requires not just a high level of film study and intuitive offensive analysis, but the ability to instantly read a wide receiver's body language, process that through a filter of the game situation (point differential, time left, down and distance) and react to it by jumping the route before it completely develops. This will often require the willingness to react to a route before the break, which is dangerous, especially against offenses that employ a heavy dose of option routes (changing the route mid-pattern based on what the defense or a particular player is doing), like the Patriots or your own Seahawks.
The ability to adapt to option routes, incidentally, is critically important for players like Antoine Winfield, who often have to play against the widest variety of option routes in the slot. Kippy Brown had this to say about the slot receivers and their use of option routes:
Now, routes I've been associated with that are called options are normally slot routes. Guys in the slot will do certain things depending on how [the defense plays] you. We do our share of those. In the West Coast offense, an option route could go either way -- a lot of people call it a 'jerk' route -- where you go in, set the linebacker up, and then go either way. It depends on the terminology, and what you want to call an option route, but in our offense, nearly every route has a conversion. If they do this, you do that.
Seth Wickersham at ESPN Magazine says the same thing—you'll often see the slot, more than any other receiver, run those option routes.
So Winfield's instinct to anticipate the slot receiver, confuse him, and find ways to close windows despite the option concept's ability to create open space is impressive. Ranking 6th in the country in yards given up per snap in coverage despite playing with a very weak set of peers at corner is made all the more impressive given that he ranked 4th in both passer rating allowed and adjusted yards per target as well as 3rd overall in adjusted yards allowed per snap in coverage. This all comes from his natural ability to understand the defense's coverage concepts and when to break them for the play.
The former Buckeye is excellent in both man and zone coverage, not just reading the receivers well but playing with precise footwork to maintain leverage and jump to the ball. He is agile enough to adjust to sudden route change, knows how to click-and-close when the ball is in the air and can track defenders just as well as he can track the ball. His style of play generally involves forcing poor passing angles instead of baiting the quarterback to swat the ball away, but he can do the second just as easily as the first.
Just like any good Seahawk, Winfield is an extremely powerful press corner, too. Much of his success against Vincent Jackson and Calvin Johnson (and numerous smaller players) comes from his ability to jolt even the largest receivers off their timing and routes. Players do not want to bear down on Winfield as he moves them off-route with the best of them. Not only does he pack power in his press, he positions his hands precisely as he punches.
Jamming at the line with efficiency and authority, he can drop back to his zone landmark or transition to man coverage quickly. He may have lost some of his quickness with age, but his hip flip is as effective as ever. Asante Samuel is well known for transitioning from a man coverage look to a zone defense, which is why he is among the best at creating interceptions. Winfield doesn't have quite that specific ability, but can move between different coverage patterns with fluidity.
He can play any technique with efficiency, be it bail, off, press, trailing, brackets, etc. An extraordinary understanding of space and geometry, Winfield excels in any coverage concept, although should not be asked to trail against the Mike Wallaces or DeSean Jacksons of the NFL.
Not only does Winfield have phenomenal instincts, he has an excellent intuition for reading the run or diagnosing play action fakes against actual runs. His ability to quickly discriminate between running plays and passing plays is not one that you often find on high-level perimeter corners, but is necessary in the slot. Rare corners like Darrelle Revis and Jason McCourty can suss out the type of play accurately (although Revis won't adjust, as the Jets used his presence to simply drop another safety into the box. Revis stays on his island). But Winfield does this on a regular basis, better than anyone in the league.
Unsurprisingly, Winfield is an excellent form tackler. He certainly has all of the basics down—keeps his head up, wraps his tackles, etc.—but he also consistently maintains more advanced tackling technique when taking down ballcarriers. He keeps his shoulders squared to their belt, sinks his hips, drives downhill, and thumps with his shoulder. All the while, he makes sure to strip the ball and force the runner to lose leverage by moving his arms up the body during the tackle. He never tackles a ballcarrier so much as runs through them.
Given his size, it's inevitable that he tackles low, but I've yet to see him miss specifically because he drove too low. It seems relatively rare that anyone hurdle Winfield despite his low tackling and small stature, and it might be because he always knows where to put his hands. Many have tried going up top, but he always complicates it by destroying their momentum. It's interesting to see a combination between wrap-up tackling and going low, but he manages to wrap the legs more than you would think.
And with all of that technical form comes one of the hardest hitters you'll see in the secondary.
He gets ignored in all but a few rankings for "hardest hitters" (as silly as it is to rank ten out of 352 starters and then some in terms of who's "hardest hitting"), but it's fairly easy to see (language warning) that he packs a punch:
The final area of analysis for run support for most players involves block shedding, something defensive backs aren't much known for. But Winfield does a very good job evading blocks, sometimes looking like a classic 4-3 Will when he navigates through traffic. It's not merely that he's agile and slippery (he is), but that he understands the angles of the game. Creating a better pursuit angle actually allows him to avoid the path that most blockers take, despite what you would expect an offensive player to do or understand.
More than that, Winfield is everything you want out of your cliche blue-collar guys. He has a nonstop motor and will consistently drive and try to make the play. He keeps his head up and makes sure to read the play as he's engaged with a blocker, often choosing not to shed his block until he knows that the runner has made a decision on where to go.
He has active hands and keeps blockers away from his body. When he finally does release, he'll often go under (his biggest advantage) after having forced them to become more top-heavy. Dropping his weight underneath the arms of the blocker, Winfield will find himself in the open field more often than not.
Even when tasked with taking on lead blockers like fullbacks and guards, the Akron, Ohio native can smoothly move underneath their push and close in on the ballcarrier. Below I have a video slated to start when he does this exact thing:
Also, just watch the video starting from 1:11 for another Antoine Winfield highlight reel (albeit a smaller one).
The next stage of analysis for Cosell and Bowen is to talk about blitzing, which is another strength of Winfield's.
In 2012, Antoine Winfield was the second most productive blitzing corner, according to Pro Football Focus' Pass Rusher Productivity, a measure that includes quarterback hits and hurries. He didn't qualify in 2011 given his limited time on the field, but in 2010 placed 10th. Some of that includes an incredible game against Philadelphia, where he was asked to blitz 17 times, grabbed two sacks and two hurries.
Remember, this was back when Michael Vick was in the conversation for an MVP, and wasn't just good—he was great. The Vikings altered their traditional game plan dramatically to eliminate Michael Vick. Against every other opponent, they sent a blitzer on less than 7% of their opportunities (6.95%). In this game, they sent a blitzer on 13% of their opportunities, nearly doubling their blitzing. And Winfield was the key. The Vikings won this game despite having Joe Webb in at quarterback.
Take a look at the highlight play from the game, that set the tone for the rest of the matchup:
Trifecta vs. Philadelphia
What makes Winfield an excellent blitzer is not that he is free and can simply take advantage of being unblocked. It's that he doesn't modify his stance at all before blitzing so he doesn't become part of the protection scheme. His second sack came on the same side as LeSean McCoy, and even with that additional help the second time around, the Eagles couldn't ward off the blitzing vet.
Again, his ability to shed blocks and drive in on players is a huge asset. Coming off the edge with speed and suddenness is critical to preventing the quarterback from using his hot-read to beat the rusher and the Ohio State product is a huge asset in this area. Once more, his high motor and insistence on making the play are huge, and he has more than once fought his way past a tackle or a fullback to create a sack or hurry the quarterback.
Despite only having 7.5 sacks in his career, Winfield is a pass-rushing asset. The Vikings defense—the boring and consistent Tampa-2—doesn't call for many blitzes, best made evident when they sacked John Skelton seven times without sending a single blitz (one of only six times teams didn't blitz on a single defensive snap in the past five years). Generally, they've sent five or more rushers about 16 percent of the time, which was the lowest in the league.
I don't know how often the Seahawks blitzed, but I can guarantee it's quite a bit more. In some games in 2011, 20 percent of the plays were defensive back blitzes alone.
With a new defensive coordinator, I expect a lot of things to change, but with a defense that has that much versatility in its personnel, I can't imagine that the Seahawks won't continue with that approach, especially given Quinn's history with Carroll.
So, if I replaced special teams with leadership, how does Winfield measure up? Among the best.
An unspoken asset to having Winfield on the team is his leadership. I don't mean the trite leadership you hear about everyday when it comes to veterans and NFL locker rooms. I haven't seen Winfield give an inspirational speech, nor have I heard about him quelling any locker room brawls. You don't see him shouting in huddles like Ray Lewis or Drew Brees, but he's definitely one with the steady hand that can steer the ship (née longboat).
As a level-headed veteran that commands the respect of his peers, I'm sure he can provide a stabilizing influence that calms people down. But the cornerback you've acquired is a man of few words, unlike Richard Sherman. And that's fine—locker rooms contain diverse personalities, and Winfield is one of many. In fact, he may be better at navigating the personality minefield that you'll see in a typical locker room.
In mid-September, the Vikings were reeling after a surprise loss to Andrew Luck and the Colts. Winfield, who rarely finds reason to voice his opinion, gave an impassioned speech to the rest of the locker room. Beating the 49ers the game after, several players went out of their way to praise the veteran defensive back as a key to their success. A year later, Leslie Frazier still thinks that the speech Winfield gave before Week 3 was the key to an improbably playoff run by the Vikings.
I'm not the kind of person who believes that that sort of thing has that much of an effect. But if you are, Winfield is one of your greatest assets. But I've seen firsthand what real field leadership means to a football team.
Veterans very rarely actually coach players to get better, nor do they consistently provide consistent feedback on technique and gameplaying—despite what common narratives would have you believe. Why coach the player who is going to replace you?
When I talked to a few undrafted free agent and longshot defensive backs about their three greatest NFL teachers, they isolated three people, two of whom were on the Vikings at the time: maligned defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, retired Vikings cornerback Asher Allen and current Seahawks nickel back Antoine Winfield.
When I talked to veteran cornerbacks, I heard the same praise. Antoine Winfield was like having another coach. He didn't just provide enthusiasm and encouragement; he would consistently isolate good and bad play and emphasize ways—on the field and on the sideline—to improve. Whether it came from the methods needed to win the positioning battle with different passing angles or techniques to come out ahead in the footwork contest with receivers either outside or in the slot, Winfield always provided specific technical feedback coupled with excellent generalized coaching.
Time and again, I saw Winfield pull aside a player, whether he was a veteran or a longshot rookie, and find measureable and objective ways to improve performance. One of my duties at a former job was to provide training with feedback both immediately and at the end of the week that provided actionable improvements with solid goals. I ran daily training workshops for my staff and I was very good at my job.
Winfield embodied the basic and advanced training techniques I would use with my staff when he was talking to other players. He would acknowledge what they did and why, and pepper in praise and opportunities for improvement while providing one specific change they could work on and master until they moved on to another skill. I have never seen another football player do that. In fact, the only other position coach I've seen do that is Mike Singletary, who may have been an abysmal head coach, but is great when coaching linebackers.
Like any player, Winfield has a number of weaknesses to his game, although he easily masks them with his experience. The first of which is perhaps not so much a weakness as it is an issue—he's 35 and will turn 36 before the season starts.
The Sports Digest did a study on football players and aging and found that quarterbacks typically peak at 25, but maintain a solid plateau throughout until 28. For other positions, the answer is a bit more complicated. Defensive pass rushers tend to fall off after 32, for example.
Without a way to consistently measure defensive performance (the best defenders are much like the dog that doesn't bark—significant but not easily captured in data), we can take a look at an equivalent position on the offense: the wide receiver. I think it's more likely that a cornerback ages more gracefully than a receiver given how much more important savvy is at that position, but I doubt the aging curve is different by even a year. So, take a look at what The Sports Digest found about aging and receivers:
Based on data gathered by several sources, it appears unquestioned that, in general, athletes reach their peak of on-field performance in their mid-twenties. After that, nearly all athletes regress as their physical skills decline, even only slightly. When an athlete is playing versus the absolute top athletes in the world in his sport, even the slightest decline in physical ability can cause a noticeable drop in performance.
. . .
To answer the question of when a football player gets old, one can assume that "old" does not mean past his peak, but rather "old" means ineffective. Therefore, while nearly all football players pass their peak between the ages of twenty-four to twenty-seven, those that have elite skills and talent to begin with can use a better knowledge of how to play the game, as well as a superior work ethic to maintain as much physical ability as possible, to maintain a high level of performance later into their careers. While is has been proven that almost all running backs see a major decline and can be considered "old" at the age of thirty, wide receivers and quarterbacks generally see a less drastic drop-off at that age, and may reach thirty-two or thirty-three before becoming "old" in football terms.
There's every reason to believe that like Jerry Rice (who played at a high level when he was 40, at Oakland), Antoine Winfield is an outlier. In fact, we know he is—one of his best seasons was last year.
But physical degeneration is a big concern, and it likely outpaces polish at this point. The marginal value of another year of experience for a player as old as Winfield has to be smaller than the marginal loss in physical capability. There's no reason to think he'll age exactly like Rice did.
Looking at Approximate Value—a measure pro-football-reference created to measure (you guessed it) the approximate value, regardless of position, that a player produced to create a frame of reference—reveals some startling facts about aging and cornerbacks.
AV has a big problem, which is that points are distributed by a number of formulas that will include all-star appearances. Winfield performed at a Pro Bowl level (although I would hesitate to say that he performed at an All-Pro level), but was glutted out by an unusually strong cornerback year for the NFC. Even Richard Sherman (who had the second-highest AV in 2012 behind J.J. Watt despite the Pro Bowl snub with 19 points) is penalized by the system, as all-star substitutes don't count.
With Winfield in the same division as Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman and Casey Hayward, and in the same conference as Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, it was difficult for him to get the votes he would deserve in another year for a performance of his caliber. Leaching the vote were also Jason McCourty and Asante Samuel.
Had he performed at this level in 2011, I don't doubt he would have had a much better chance making the Pro Bowl, and he would be a lock in 2010.
At any rate, I assumed his "true" performance rated at about an "8" in the system (he was a 6), and I looked at which other cornerbacks performed at that level or higher after age 35.
Only 17 cornerback seasons ever rated an 8 after that age, since 1920.
In fact, there were 39 total seasons that rated a 6 or above in that system—22 players total. In the last 10 years, it has been four players.
So, you should expect some serious dropoff from Winfield some time soon, probably this season. Nevertheless, he will be well above the average nickel cornerback. Should he decline a theoretically healthy Walter Thurmond III should step in and fulfill the nickel role, although he would be best used as the league's best dime back and hopefully used to revive the bandit, which I'll detail a little bit later.
The second weakness from Winfield is fairly obvious, too. He's not lengthy (which of course doesn't mean he doesn't fit the Seattle "system" so much as he's reserved for nickel and dime roles) and can be exploited by bigger slot players like (big) Mike Williams used to be or David Nelson (and many times now Calvin Johnson). More relevantly, Anquan Boldin is a threat in the slot.
While his matchups against the taller receivers that Winfield has played against don't inspire worry, a taller corner with a wider wingspan would be much more capable. His length has specifically been exploited by Detroit and Chicago, although he's come out ahead more often than not. Nevertheless, a team that figures out how to take care of his height will do very well until Seattle responds by replacing him. It hasn't happened often in his career, but it easily could. Andrew Luck took care to target Winfield early for the longest play Winfield gave up that season.
The height issue is compounded by Antoine's agility and overall athleticism, which are not at a high level—although at a much higher level than commentators seems to give him credit for. At the combine in 1999, Winfield ran a 3.95 second short shuttle, a 6.84 second 3-cone drill and paired that with a 4.41 40-yard dash. He certainly was athletic and has the short-area chops to do well.
Nevertheless, he's lost a lot of his quickness. Were it not for his solid tackling form and preternatural instincts, I would worry about matching him up against Tavon Austin. In fact, I still would. He is an extremely efficient tackler and I would trust him above Leroy Hill when it came to an open-field tackle against the West Virginia phenom, but his declining skills should justifiably raise concerns. Now that your weak-side linebacker is Heath Farwell, I would be even more enthusiastic about playing Winfield in the base package.
Winfield will no longer run down the fastest receivers like he used to. Instead, he uses positioning and instincts to stay a step ahead. Unfortunately, those alone won't win NFL matchups. Winfield has yet to be beaten for a touchdown in the last 37 games, but it's going to happen soon. Last year, he only allowed two passes beyond 25 yards, but this year should allow a few more if forced into more opportunities.
Finally, he doesn't have the ball skills of top-tier corners. With only 0.14 interceptions a game, he can't compare to Casey Hayward (0.375), Richard Sherman (0.375), Asante Samuel (0.34), Charles Woodson (0.27), Darrelle Revis (0.24), Charles Tillman (0.22) or Champ Bailey (0.24).
Winfield isn't deficient in this area so much as not as efficient as top-tier players. Cornerbacks with over 275 snaps averaged an interception on 2.95 percent of their targets, but the top 160 cornerback seasons (the top 32 times five seasons) averaged an interception on 5.8 percent of their coverage. For those curious, Asante Samuel had the top two seasons in 2010 and 2009, respectively (17.07 and 13.04 percent). Aqib Talib's 2008 came in third (12.9 percent), Chis McAlister's 2008 followed, but only had 25 targets (11.84 percent). Charles Woodson grabbed the next two spots at 10.77 percent and 10.17 percent in 2009 and 2008.
Winfield averages 2.56 interceptions per pass target. It is simply not a way that he changes the game despite his excellent coverage skills.
On the other hand, he hasn't allowed a single touchdown in the last three years, despite starting 37 games. Overall, when adjusting for touchdowns and interceptions, Winfield allows an adjusted 5.89 yards per attempt when thrown at. The average cornerback allowed 7.58 adjusted yards per attempt over the last five seasons.
There are a number of ways the Seahawks could incorporate Antoine Winfield, whether it's through base plays in a nickel package or trickier stuff.
From what I could gather—and correct me if I'm wrong—the Seahawks typically run a Cover-3 zone or a Cover-1 man with weird gap control concepts. I've labeled Red Bryant's position the "5" and the Leo as "L". Other than that, everything should be relatively clear in the above picture. In running plays, the Will takes the weak-side B gap and the Mike the strong-side A gap. The nose and the under tackle both play gap control instead of shooting upfield and the 5 controls his blocker, making sure to read the run and shed blockers if need be. This should free up the U to stunt if need be. The strong-side linebacker controls the tight end's alley ("D" gap).
Here, SE and FL stand for Split End and Flanker, incidentally.
The cornerbacks jam at the line then backpedal/move to the deep thirds, while the free safety patrols a larger third deep downfield. The strong safety and three linebackers then control underneath zones, and will emphasize the importance of preventing the big play at the cost of giving away minor yardage underneath (just like the Vikings' Tampa-2).
In addition to that "over" front, the Seahawks also have an "under" front. I used a nickel variation I found to highlight a more aggressive pass-rush philosophy and an outside protection concept on the strong-side in case the threat of the tight end is particularly worrisome on third down. Winfield's role is labeled as the nickel back (NB). Nothing new or interesting here, except as a means of playing a more controlled passing game. You can substitute the Sam linebacker for Winfield on this one and have functionally the same play, although the flanker would do better to option into an intermediate route were that the case.
I also noticed a front in nickel packages with five potential rushers, but only three actual pass-rushers without the blitz.
Here I've substituted the fullback for a slot receiver, labeled "R", which could just as easily be labeled "U" if I was more concerned with standardization. But the undertackle has that designation and I want to avoid confusion if possible. So "R" it is.
Adding rushers and confusing protection by having a Leo/Will and a Leo/Sam is interesting, but not the point of having Winfield over another corner. There are a number of interesting ways to incorporate this front and integrate Winfield's strengths.
Bobby Wagner's range and Antoine Winfield's excellent zone capability will protect the passing game and create "safe pressure"—a term Dick Lebeau would use constantly when describing the zone blitz—while sending four rushers and a nose to tie up a guard and a center in some way. Winfield is much more useful here than most corners because the coverage range is much, much larger in a 3-3 zone shell than a 3-4 shell and the passes come in tighter windows with more velocity and less reaction time. A deep wide zone bears little resemblance to the shallow wide zone and it takes a savvy corner to man that width.
You've also got the press-Cover 3 in the nickel designed to move the slot receiver off of his timing while presenting the same look.
This look would be a little more difficult were it not for Winfield's excellent capabilities as a press receiver with an intuition on how to get to the landmark. In this case, the Mike will need to watch for hitches and ins while Winfield would need to be cognizant of stick routes and outs. This play is simply designed to maintain Seattle's normal philosophy in another package. Seattle could just as easily run a press-man look from this concept with Wagner spying the HB and the Sam taking the tight end. Chancellor could play a QB spy, blitzer or robber in that instance, which would look like so:
What's important about the base press Cover-3 in the nickel is that it sets up a Winfield special—a fake jam for a blitz (weak-side overload in one case and a zone blitz in the case below). The Sam has a green dotted line to indicate that he's got a green dog call on the tight end. If the tight end stays in to block, the Sam blitzes. If not, the Sam plays man coverage.
Setting the Leo or defensive end into coverage and creating a very basic Cover 3 while confusing protection schemes is not too unlike the several times Jared Allen has been asked to drop back and cover for a Winfield blitz. Allen has 5 career interceptions and 44 pass deflections, incidentally. This style of zone blitz is one reason why.
Here's one of those fun plays that rely on the press Cover 3 look to confuse protection schemes, create safe pressure, and take advantage of Winfield's ability to make a blitz look like simple press coverage. The Sam rushes up field not just to occupy the halfback as a blocker and pull him away from Winfield, but to contain the run before rushing to his zone. If you don't trust your Sam's change-of-direction skills, I would throw this play away. But otherwise, it's a goodie.
There's nothing interesting about Winfield here. I jut saw this look from Seattle two or so years ago and wanted to include it. Weak side overload, with man coverage on everybody and Earl Thomas preventing the big play. Go crazy!
The Winfield specific stuff I would include would just be something trite but true, which is just that his skill at pressing the receiver should delay the quarterback enough that options other than a screen will still cause a half second delay, which should be enough to allow a linebacker or a Leo to exploit the protection mismatch and get to the quarterback. Because the halfback is subject to a green dog call by the Mike, the halfback (set up in the shotgun on the strong side) setting up to block the Will linebacker will trigger the Mike to rush up the center and prevent a pulling guard from helping the protection even more.
The blocking math is potentially deadly, but you have to trust your players in man coverage. The point is that you can trust Winfield in that sort of coverage.
When Seattle boasted more depth and Marcus Trufant was a consistently viable option, they played a bandit package with seven defensive backs. They could do the same here. In this case, the Mike linebacker will be the fourth pass-rusher as the coverage is a quarters coverage designed to take away as many passing option as possible. Both the Big Nickel (an in-the-box guy like Jeron Johnson) and nickel back are threats to blitz and will change the blocking assignments for the guard and tackle. Hopefully a motioning Mike linebacker could take advantage of it. But that's the least that defensive back depth could do.
Here's one of hundreds of potential Amoeba/bandit examples Seattle could use, with a blitzing Brandon Browner covered by the dimeback (again, this would be a theoretically healthy Walter Thurmond III), a green-dogging Kam Chancellor and a greedy Bobby Wagner looking to overload the strong side.
Now that you have Tharold Simon as well, the options are endless. While he's more of a perimeter or zone guy, you could keep him as the final defensive back or third safety or install him as a dimeback with perimeter duties.
The opportunities in this package are endless, and I didn't even include a Winfield blitz option. His ability to play the slot will give most packages weak side protection against the run, allowing strong-side blitzes to flush out running plays and quarterback scrambles.
Winfield does very well on a scramble drill, and has a nice set of QB hits to his name to go along with it when not outperforming veterans and working back to the line of scrimmage and clogging passing lanes when the play breaks down.
Your newest former Viking doesn't just fit the general philosophy of a Seattle defensive back by playing hard and with discipline, but also revives and enhances opportunities that Seattle may have dismissed or needed to spruce up.
Losing Trufant and Hill wasn't a big deal, but Seattle needs starters. They could easily move to a base nickel package with Winfield available to take over for some of this depth problem. I wouldn't line Winfield up at Will when playing against a zone run offense simply because he could be eaten alive by guards, but what are you going to do? Rely on a 7th round pick or a UDFA instead of Heath Farwell or Malcolm Smith?
Here's what I found about your UDFAs:
Kyle Knox, via Sports Illustrated:
Positives: Speedy linebacker who makes plays in every direction of the field. Displays good movement skills, a burst of speed and the ability to pursue the action from the back side. Makes plays sideline to sideline, forceful up the field on the blitz and displays skill in zone coverage. Relentlessly chases the action and works hard to get through blocks.
Negatives: Engulfed at the point of attack by opponents. Not a strong wrap-up tackler who brings opponents down on initial contact. Adequate production in college.
Analysis: Knox was as dependable linebacker for Fresno State and on film displays himself as a potential weak side defender for the next level. He could have a role as a backup if he stands out on special teams.
Ramon Buchanan, via CBS Sports:
Buchanon is an outstanding athlete with excellent playing speed to drop in coverage and cover both sidelines against the run. Buchanan has a lean frame and struggles to shed blocks, but has the quickness and range to at least fight for a spot on special teams coverage at the next level. If he proves to be fully recovered from his knee injury, Buchanan should be a later round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
John Lotulelei, via NFL.com:
STRENGTHS Lotulelei is a thick outside linebacker who possesses enough quickness to avoid offensive linemen and closing speed to attack stretch plays on the other side of the line. He's an aggressive tackler who can explode into ballcarriers; he also takes out fullbacks and pulling guards in the hole like a hammer. Lotulelei low center of gravity and upper-body strength allows him to punch to shed and play with leverage inside, and he has the instincts and vision to find the ball in traffic. His hustle and solid tackling should allow him to succeed on the interior of special teams coverage units.
WEAKNESSES He'll be among the shorter linebackers in the draft class. His short, compact build will probably limit him to the interior at the next level, and linemen will have an advantage over him between the tackles with his average length. His man-cover skills are limited, as he lacks the pure short-area quickness and recovery speed to chase down receivers once taking a false step or starting a tick behind.
NFL COMPARISON Joe Mays
BOTTOM LINE Lotulelei (no relation with Utah defensive tackle Star) needed some time to take advantage of his gifts at the junior college level, and didn't earn a starting spot until later in his junior year. There are plenty of things to like about his attacking style, however, allowing him to project as a late-round inside linebacker prospect with good special teams potential.
Craig Wilkins, via ESPN Insider, where they gave him a grade of 30, which they describe as "players that teams like something about, but certainly do not have the full package in terms of NFL talent.":
Instincts/Recognition: Above average gap and backside discipline. Reads keys and quickly locates the ball more times than not though takes too long to react to misdirection at times. Also appears to diagnose plays quicker in the box than does lining up over the slot. Reads quarterbacks and flashes above average route recognition in coverage.
Take-on Skills: Flashes a strong punch working against fullbacks and tight ends but takes too long to get off blocks when doesn't win with leverage and explosiveness. Gives too much ground to offensive linemen. Doesn't always play with proper leverage in terms of which shoulder he attacks when taking on blockers in space.
Range vs. Run: Has potential to develop into sideline-to-sideline player. Closes down cut back lanes. Above average straight-line closing speed and appears quick enough to chase backs down from behind. However, gets caught up in wash at times. Angles and to a lesser degree effort are inconsistent.
Tackling: Flashes the ability to lower shoulder and deliver big hit but always looking for the kill shot and misses too many tackles. Body control biggest issue. Fails to break down and can whiff in space. Angles play a role and can whiff diving at ball carrier's feet when unable to get into sound position.
3rd Down Capabilities: Sloppy pedal. Doesn't sink hips and takes elongated steps but can improve in this area. Widens out over the slot at times and shows good short area cover skills for the position. Fluid hips and opens well. Above average range in zone coverage. Above average burst and average bend when rushes off the edge. Flashes the ability to bulldoze backs. Isn't the most polished pass rusher but good lateral quickness and can redirect inside after setting up linemen to the outside. Ball hawk.
I found even less on seventh-round draft pick Ty Powell, but a practice report from Detroit Lions Draft could be illuminating:
On his first rep he slithered past Fresno State RB Robbie Rouse, who barely touched him. Powell showed explosive forward burst out of his shoulder move, very strong legs. On another rep he got initially stonewalled by Western Kentucky TE Jack Doyle but used a strong arm swipe to break free and continue towards the QB. It was about the only thing Powell really did well all day. During a drill right before this he was very stiff in the ankles and was admonished to "keep your eyes up and your ass down" more than once. He got stuck too far inside once in 11s, unable to navigate the traffic and looking very uncomfortable flowing laterally. But he definitely showed acumen as an inside blitzer and has enough power to merit looks as a 3-4 ILB.
And Cleveland Browns Draft has something to say as well:
Linebacker Ty Powell of Division II Harding University opened some eyes with his performance this morning. He gave running backs fits during a blitz pickup drill, and followed that with a strong showing in team drills, getting in on a number of run stops near the line of scrimmage. Powell was originally slated for the Shrine Game last week, but ended up being a late addition to the Senior Bowl roster. He has been one of the early pleasant surprises this week, and will surely send a few people scrambling to find game footage of him.
Buffalo Bills Draft likes him in the amoeba defense:
I'm biased in that I love D2 prospects that make it. Powell will be the 1st player drafted from Harding in 30 years! He is 6'2" 246lbs and runs a 4.6 40. He has played a variety of positions while at Harding but looks to be an OLB at the NFL level. Another factor that makes me like Powell is that he clocked just under 7 seconds for his 3 cone drill at the combine. This sub 7 second time is usually a decent measuring stick for LB success. His 3 cone drill was one of the highest in his group. He has good instincts and may be lingering around anywhere from the 5th to 6th round. Yeah, I don't want another Danny Batten either, but this kid has some hops!
At any rate, sounds like a blitzer with athletic tools that need to be turned into NFL assets elsewhere on the field. Could take a season or two.
There's good reason to put Winfield in the base package over any of those linebackers even in running situations. The knock on the Will prospects is that they get blown up, while the knock on the Sam prospects are that they can't wrap up. Powell still needs work it seems. Winfield has the same problems but could act as a better tackler navigating through traffic and would have far superior tackling skills. Keeping KJ Wright on the field should eliminate the need for a linebacker with good take-on skills but poor tackling.
Just like Bum Phillips said about inventing his one-gap 3-4 defense from the 4-3 he had earlier: "Coaching is pretty simple really. If you don't got something, find something you do got. Really, we didn't have but one [defensive lineman] - [Hall of Famer] Elvin [Bethea] - until we got Curley [Culp] in the middle of that season. Then we had two. What we did have was four real good linebackers, so all I done was find a way to get our best players on the field."
You done got some defensive backs and you don't have but two linebackers. Quinn will take his'n and figure it out.
We can of course finish with more highlight videos:
And a great game vs. the Saints that I can't embed: LINK
Enjoy your newest Viking.