Winfield leaves leadership void in secondary

Antoine Winfield (Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY)

Antoine Winfield's absence in the secondary will be felt on the field, but his leadership and study habits will be missed in a young secondary that will have to find new leaders.

Over the course of three years, the Vikings have gone from one of the oldest opening-day rosters in 2010 to 14th with their projected starting lineup on defense for 2013, according to ESPN.com.

It's been the mission of general manager Rick Spielman to have the roster trend younger. Having 28 draft picks over the last three years, including five first-rounders in the last two draft, helps that mission.

But youth comes with a price. Leadership is one of the areas where the Vikings will also be in transition and few positions will feel that more than the defensive backfield, where Antoine Winfield is taking his talents (and leadership by example) to Seattle after 14 NFL seasons, including the last nine with the Vikings.

"He was obviously the leader of the group and we all had a ton of respect for him and looked to him for advice," safety Harrison Smith said. "Now, it's really an opportunity for the rest of us to kind of fill that void and somebody to step in at corner and nickel and just make plays; just kind of gel together and fill that hole."

Smith is one of the players the Vikings will look toward, despite the fact that he is entering only his second season in the NFL. His hard-nosed style on the field and thoughtful approach off the field should bode well.

But nobody had more NFL experience on last year's roster than Winfield, who was drafted 23rd overall by the Buffalo Bills in 1999 and joined the Vikings as a free agent in 2004 when Mike Tice was head coach. During that time, Winfield gained respect year after year for his study habits and his ability to be a difference-maker on the field in a variety of ways.

His absence will leave a void for most of the defenders, including one of the new stars that grown into a leadership role.

"(Losing Winfield) was a hard one, I'll tell you that much," said linebacker Chad Greenway, a Pro Bowl player himself. "A fan favorite, a player favorite, a team favorite. Hard one to see happen. Obviously we know it's a business, but I was texting him back and forth quite a bit. It was a decision that was tough for him.

"We know if it'd have worked out, he'd have been here. But he's got a good fit out there. On paper they're the cream of the crop this year. So we're always going to be happy for Antoine, but when we go up there to play him, now he's got to tackle 28 (Adrian Peterson) in real life. We know he's a great tackler, so we'll see how good he is. But he's one of the favorites of all time, all-time Vikings, in my opinion. So, it's sad to see him go, but happy that he's still playing."

The Vikings decided Winfield wasn't worth the $7.25 million salary cap hit was scheduled to become in 2013. It's a risk on the field, as Winfield played in 91 percent of the defensive snaps last year, despite the coaching staff's desire to reduce the wear and tear on him.

He was just too good and too consistent to replace him with the alternative younger parts.

"We all obviously wanted him back. There's not a player like him. Some of the plays he makes, I've never seen," Smith said. "We all obviously wanted him back. Not just for the field, but we also kind of looked to him off the field as well. But not having him back, we're happy that he found somewhere he wants to play, and, like I said, we just want to move forward and kind of try to fill that gap that he's going to leave."

To that end, the Vikings drafted a system-fit cornerback in Xavier Rhodes with the 25th pick overall in this year's draft.

While Rhodes will be the favorite to take over for Winfield as the starting left cornerback, 2012 third-round pick Josh Robinson should also see an increased role, possibly as the nickel cornerback.

That's a role that Winfield has had in the past, but Robinson pointed to Winfield's off-the-field contributions as leaving a big void for younger players in the secondary.

"His study habits are superb," Robinson said. "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."

Last year, Winfield had 110 tackles, 11 of those for losses, three quarterback hurries, tied for the team lead with three interceptions and tied for second with 13 passes defensed.

Now it will be up to a young secondary to find its leaders. Despite only one year in the league, Smith could be one of those guys. Fellow starting safety Jamarca Sanford could be another, as he is tied for the lead in experience (with free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey) among Vikings' defensive backs with four years in the league.

"There's obviously kind of a leadership gap there with Antoine leaving. But in the room, we've got a bunch of leaders, guys who work hard," Smith said. "Obviously, kind of our biggest vocal guy, as you guys know, is Jamarca. But all of us have that work ethic and that desire to win. As safeties, it's already kind of on us to call the calls and stuff like that. We kind of feel like we have to take that leadership role."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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