Winfield Out To Prove Coverage Skills

The stories of how the Vikings got Antoine Winfield to sign with Minnesota are great drama, but Winfield's last two months have been spent proving to those in the organization that he's worth the big contract he signed.

When the Vikings laid out $35 million over six years, including $10.8 million in a roster bonus, Antoine Winfield became the highest paid outside free agent in franchise history.

"The day he stepped on the field he upgraded us," said free safety Brian Russell. "He's a shutdown corner. I don't know if corners like to be called that because it puts a lot of pressure on them, but the guy is that skilled. You can put him on the No. 1 receiver all day and feel real comfortable doing that. They say he's one of the better tacklers in the league."

The stories of how he had a pen in his hand ready to sign with the New York Jets before the Vikings wooed him with a phone call and a better offer are entertaining for sure, and they are pretty accurate as well, Winfield said.

But a paperwork delay on the Jets' part and a last-minute call from Vikings head coach Mike Tice to Winfield's agent made all the difference to fans of the purple.

"If (the Jets) would have had the contract ready, I probably would have signed. But they didn't," Winfield said. "We went over there and they didn't have the contract ready. That gave my agent and Coach Tice more time to talk. My decision was to come here.

"It was a better deal and I wanted to win a Super Bowl. With the offense that they have here and the improvement of the defense and Coach (Ted) Cottrell coming in, I think there's a good shot."

While there were also stories of his wife not being particularly fond of New York, Winfield said that wasn't really the case. Two four-letter words brought him to Minnesota — the "deal" and the "team."

Before he even put on a purple jersey, Winfield was receiving heavy praise from Vikings scouts, and the last two months he has been showing those in the organization why they wanted him so badly. He has been tight with his coverage in practices and ready to offer run support.

He will need at least that first attribute in covering the receivers in the NFC North, especially a young and tall duo emerging in Detroit. That's why going against Randy Moss during practices in May and June could be valuable when Winfield meets Detroit in November and December.

Then it will be the 5-foot-9 cornerback covering the 6-foot-2 Charles Rogers and Roy Williams.

"Detroit has those two. They always tell me about small corners out there and jump balls, but we're not out there playing basketball," Winfield said. "There are some big receivers in this conference, but I'll step up to the challenge."

Moss and the offense have been quick to talk big in practice, but Winfield isn't one to back down.

"That's fun," he said of the competitive jawing in practice. "We expect that from them. They're good players, especially Moss. He's one of the best receivers in the NFL right now, and I just have fun going against a player like that."

He's getting used to new teammates, but defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell is someone who Winfield is familiar with. Cottrell was in Buffalo as its defensive coordinator between 1998-2000, and Winfield entered the league as a rookie in 1999.

"He's a motivator. He's a teacher," Winfield said of Cottrell. "You go in after practice every day and he corrects mistakes. He's a jokester and he can make you laugh. Once you mess up, he'll get on you."

Winfield expects an aggressive style of defense this season.

"We're going to do a lot of zone blitzing and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, play some cover two and just mix up a lot of coverages."

That means the cornerback will be left alone in space at times while a safety that could be helping him is blitzing. That doesn't bother Winfield in the least. "(Cottrell) knows what I can do," he said.

What Winfield has done in the past five years is provide solid tackling and coverage skills and become known as one of the better cornerbacks in the league. According to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, there was Champ Bailey, then Antoine Winfield, then no one else in this year's free-agent crop worth spending big money on.

But the rap on Winfield has been his lack of interceptions — six in five years. Scouts and coaches with the Vikings say that is simply because teams don't throw Winfield's way. Winfield just says the interceptions will come, but they won't define him. His tackling skills are what make him a prized cornerback in the NFL.

"I just go out there and play the game. The interceptions will come. I don't go out there and give up big plays. That's my strong suit. I make a lot of tackles," he said.

"I learned that at a very early age, playing with the kids around my neighborhood, my uncles and everyone. I just have that passion, that aggressiveness. I like to come up and make tackles. I've been doing it since I was eight years old, so that's not going to change."

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